Ask an OT About Neck Pain
Life is frustrating and discouraging when you are unable to do the things that are important to you and that you enjoy.
When neck pain limits your ability to:
- take care of yourself,
- participate in paid or unpaid work, or
- enjoy your leisure time; e.g. hobbies, sports, or spending time with family,
then it's time to learn new ways of "doing things" from an occupational therapist.
Sometimes neck pain takes a great deal of time to go away, and in some people cannot be completely eliminated. However, an occupational therapist can suggest strategies that will help you to reduce the pain and prevent further injury that causes neck pain. How can occupational therapy help?
Question: What causes neck pain?
Answer. Awkward posture, injury, disability and disease can cause neck pain. Almost all of us experience some type of neck pain at some time in our lives. Neck pain that lasts longer than a couple of days should be reported to your doctor.
Neck pain can be caused from simply positioning your head in an awkward position. An example of this is falling asleep while reading or watching TV. This pain usually goes away in a day or two.
Pain can also be a result of an injury such as whiplash usually resulting from a car accident.
As we become older, the possibility of injury increases as our muscles may become less conditioned. Osteoarthritis also causes neck pain by affecting the spine, which supports your neck.
Question. I seem to have pain no matter what I do. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer. Occupational therapists recommend that to decrease the amount of pain, and to prevent it from getting worse, you need to change how you do many of your day-to-day activities. Here are a few suggestions:
Avoid a poking chin
When you are driving a car, working at a computer, or even vacuuming, use a mirror to check to see if your chin is poking out. This upsets the normal curve in your spine and puts stress on your neck muscles which in turn causes you pain.
Take frequent breaks
If you sit or stand in one position, at any activity, your neck muscles become tired and more vulnerable to injury. People who work in front of a computer are particularly at risk. Try to take "micro breaks" (30-60 seconds), every 15 minutes and do stretching exercises. For example, shrug your shoulders, or put your hands behind your head and gently stretch your elbows back. Get up and walk around. This relaxes and refreshes your muscles to begin work again comfortably.
Change your environment
Avoid twisting or bending or stretching your neck in any activity you do throughout the day. For example, if you are an avid gardener, but you are recovering from whiplash, try using garden equipment with extended handles.
Question. I was told I have to learn to live with my neck pain. That's easier said than done!
Answer. Chronic pain is any pain that lasts beyond the normal healing period and is not responsive to the usual methods of pain treatment (IASP, 1994*). It can get you down. For some people, it can even lead to severe stress and depression.
Changing the way you think and feel about the pain can help you to live with it and to reduce the pain over time. Relaxation techniques, temporarily reducing your activities, and choosing other ways to look at your pain, will reduce stress and tension. An occupational therapist can review these strategies with you.
Help is available
Pain management usually involves a team of health professionals. An occupational therapist, as part of this team, will help you to take control, manage the long term effects of pain,and lead a productive, active and fulfilling lifestyle.
Sleep with your spine straight
Using special pillows that support your neck and keep your spine straight can prevent neck pain and stiffness in the morning.
Watch your position at the computer
- Keep your chin parallel to the floor and directly above your sternal notch (the curve at the top of your breastbone).
- Position the keyboard so your nose lines up between the G and H keys and keep the nose aligned with the centre of the computer screen.
This information was prepared in collaboration with the Alliance of Occupational Therapy Practices in B.C.