The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

The photo at right is a classic example of today’s typical “computer slouch.”

Look at the angle of the neck, the slump of the chest, and the rounded shoulders. Sit like that long enough and you develop neck, shoulder and back pain. You might even find it difficult to take a full breath.

It’s rare to meet someone nowadays who doesn’t spend significant amounts of time on the computer.

Even senior citizens are now reconnecting with old friends, not to mention staying in touch with grandchildren, via Facebook and email. Younger and younger children are beginning to use computers both in school and at home in place of outdoor play. They, too, are learning to slump and tighten their muscles as they become absorbed in their video games or personal electronic devices. Hundreds of millions of people work at computer terminals, often for hours at a stretch without getting up.

Anything movement you do or posture you hold repeatedly becomes a habit.

If you have to sit for hours, with elbows bent, wrists immobile and fingers typing rapidly, the brain will teach the muscles to be ready to sit and type again, in just the same manner, the next day. The wrists will be tight, the biceps tighter than usual to hold the arms steady and the neck will hold your head right where it needs to be in order to read what’s on the screen. Eventually this learned posture can lead to muscular pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck and shoulder problems.

Children have the same potential as adults to become stuck in an habituated, slumped posture – one that tightens the chest, restricts breathing, overuses the back, neck and shoulder muscles, and can eventually lead to postural dysfunction and muscular pain. Encouraging children to spend time outdoors moving – running, riding bikes, jumping, playing – will go a long way in keeping a child aware of his body (instead of the computer screen) and healthier in the long run.

Here are a few helpful Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk every hour. They will teach you to release, relax, and lengthen your muscles – and eliminate neck and shoulder pain – while increasing body awareness.

Try them and let me know how it goes. This really helps me when I have to spend time at the computer:

Turn your head at a 45 degree angle to the right.

Slowly tighten your left shoulder up toward the ear, as you slowly tighten your neck back toward the left shoulder blade.

You’ll feel a contraction at the top of the shoulder and on the left side of the neck.

Slowly lengthen out of the contraction, and allow the neck to lengthen as the chin points to the right chest. The shoulder relaxes back to neutral.

Repeat 3 times, then do the same sequence on the other side.

Remember to move slowly for greater awareness in retraining your muscles to relax.

You’re “teasing out” the muscle tightness, not by stretching, but by pandiculating – tightening first, then lengthening, much like a yawn. This movement should help you become more aware of the habit of hunching the shoulders. Once you’re aware of a habit, it’s more easily reversible.

9 thoughts on “The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

  1. Hi Martha,
    Would this exercise have a “knock on affect” and help to relieve tension in the jaw? I’ve had problems with tension in my jaw, neck & shoulder for some months now. I’m more aware of the tension in my jaws and feel that it may be due to the build up of tension in my neck & shoulders?

    • Hi,
      Yes, this exercise can begin to get at your jaw problems and yes, tight jaw muscles can develop from built up muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. That and excessive dental work (that requires that you sit with your head cocked back in the dentist’s chair, with jaws open and muscles tight). I have several suggestions:

      – buy my DVD and learn the basic movements, which will teach you to relax the major muscles of the core of the body. This will begin to address the slumping pattern (red light reflex), in addition to relaxing he back muscles, which, when too tight, can contribute to chronic jaw pain.
      – do the exercise I show in the blog post and begin to feel the muscles of the shoulder and neck and how they work together.
      – add the jaw to the exercise: as you tilt your head backward and draw your shoulder up, slowly open your jaw. As you relax the neck and shoulder back to neutral, relax the jaw as well. Make the movement slow and smooth.

      I’ll make a note to write a blog about jaw issues. A lot of people have these problems due to sitting too much! Let me know how this works. Thanks for the question! Martha

      • Hello Martha!
        Thank you very much for replying to my question! I only just now realised you had replied (I was searching through your articles listed under shoulder pain :) I’ve tried those exercises before with minimal relief. Although I should try and do them more frequently I think focussing on the core/major muscles will be more beneficial, as you pointed out in your most recent article/video. I have a lot of imbalances & tightness because of my scoliosis and the fact that I sit at a computer each day probably doesn’t help. Thanks again for the added tips and I hope to get a copy of your DVD soon! :)
        All the best,

  2. If you have scoliosis, this, and the way you might be sitting at your computer all day, has more to do with your shoulder than anything else. I’ve done Clinical Somatics sessions with quite a number of people with scoliosis – with great success.

    Scoliosis is one of those conditions which (with rare exceptions) has its roots in the “trauma reflex.” More and more doctors are now realizing, and telling their patients, that trauma has much to do with the muscular holding pattern of scoliosis and that sensory motor training can help to reduce the curve. Of course, it depends on how long you’ve had it – but you can still find relief even if you’ve had scoliosis for 30 years. You won’t be able to reduce the curve like the 16 year olds I’ve worked with, but you can begin to teach the muscles to release more.

    I don’t know where you live, but my suggestion would be to find a practitioner with whom you can do clinical sessions. Scoliosis is complicated enough that hands-on work is imperative. The exercises will help over time, but the bottom line really is addressing the intrinsic pattern: if you have an “S” curve, the pattern is tight waist/hip muscles on one side, which causes a compensatory pattern of contraction through the deep extensor muscles of the back on the other side and a locking down of the shoulder on that side. The ribs twist, which causes the back muscles to get stuck. Addressing the “green light” and “trauma” reflexes is the first step. If you simply address the shoulder you won’t find long term relief, because it’s the PATTERN of contraction that is causing the problem!

    Do buy the DVD! You’ll be glad you did. Start at the beginning and go through it slowly. Then consider (depending on your location) doing a series of Skype sessions with me – or clinical hands-on sessions with someone in your area. I can refer you to a good practitioner.

    I’m here to help – please call on me. This work is profoundly effective when used as an on-going “re-education” tool to remind your muscles that they know how to move. It’s not a one shot deal, but I’m quite sure you can learn to do it for yourself.

    All the best,

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  5. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a very good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

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