help my neck feel better!
August 25, 2011 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Sore neck, shoulder and arm from slouching in front of my computer. Any tips on making myself feel better?

I've been spending the summer working in an office, which I'm not used to, and after recently working extra hours I came down with pretty bad pain in my neck, right shoulder and arm. It's sore and tight and my arm feels pretty strained.

My doctor said it was a pulled muscle and possibly even a nerve issue since I sometimes get shooting pains. I've been referred to a specialist, but being Canadian I won't be able to see one for a while.

What I'm doing already, which help somewhat:
- ibuprofen
- switched my desk chair to one with more back support
- taking more breaks to walk around
My doctor also gave me a referral to a massage therapist but I'm a little uncomfortable with people touching me so I'm still ambivalent about going.

What can I do to make myself feel better in the meantime? I'm curious about stretches, exercising (I swim every weekend, would that help or hurt right now?), hot/cold packs, different painkillers, etc. I've never had back/neck pain before so I'm not sure where to start. Thanks!
posted by vanitas to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
What's your keyboard and mouse situation like? I discovered that in addition to switching my desk chair, raising my keyboard and mouse to be almost 6 to 10 inches above my lap AND adding those nice gel wrist wrests to both seriously cut down my carpal tunnel and my shoulder pain.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:39 PM on August 25, 2011

Get a nice fist-sized ball (a lacrosse ball is perfect, but a tennis ball or even a baseball will do in a pinch) and put it between your back and a wall. Lean back. Roll around. Move your arms around. It will feel awesome, and you will quickly figure out what spots need work.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:42 PM on August 25, 2011

Take a break to lie on the floor on your back, holding you knees to your chest with your arms. Much better than walking around, in my experience.

Get a couple of reams of paper to put under your monitor. The top of your monitor should be at the same height as the top of your eyes.

Use more keyboard shortcuts, to minimise the number of reaches for the mouse.
posted by pompomtom at 9:52 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you do follow up with massage, might be worth looking at "trigger point" massage. That's what my doctor recommended for similar neck-shoulder-arm shooting pain and referred pain in my case. (But I didn't do it).

I also find the exercises my doctor recommended help in the short term at least. Each one of these should be performed slowly and carefully from a neutral forward-facing starting position, and should be held for around 20 seconds or as long as feels comfortable, before returning to neutral. Then repeat.

1. Tuck your chin in as far as you can. Try to touch it to the top of your chest.
2. Lean your head to the side. Try to touch your ear to your shoulder without raising the shoulder. Do this on each side.
3. Turn your head to look to the side as far as you can. As a variation on this you can then tilt your head while in that position.
4. Draw your shoulder blades back as far as possible. Hold.
posted by lollusc at 9:56 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

In addition to the above: ice it daily for 20 minutes. Anything else that cuts down on the pain, including ibuprofen, altering sleeping positions, changing bags, mouse hands, posture or desk setup, DO. Less pain and more healing go together. Deep tissue/trigger point massage has been helpful to me in reducing radiating pain for a week or two this summer, so try it once and see. Right now I feel like my massage therapist is being at least as helpful and methodical (including stretching and posture suggestions) as my physical therapist on a very similar issue, but I expect that's a lot more of an individual thing than a truism across specialties. Either type of practitioner will be touching you some, and for the area you're describing, you could probably stay relatively clothed for massage.

You can also google some stretches for RSI. If they hurt, try leaning your head/neck into the stretch so that there's less strain on the involved nerve(s). And good luck; I've been fighting a very similar problem this summer and found it very frustrating.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:56 PM on August 25, 2011

The exercises lollusc recommends are really similar to the ones in Treat Your Own Neck ($10 on amazon). It has solved my nerve issue/disc herniation pain. Get it.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:04 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Massage helps more than anything else, in my experience. A good massage therapist (you'll know they're good when they actively seek and find your tight spots rather than just doing the same thing every time) is magic. Best of all, you'll learn what helps so that you can work on yourself at home. Neck issues really lend themselves to gentle self-massage, as it's not hard to reach most of the muscles. See also the lacrosse-ball-in-a-sock trick restless_nomad mentioned above.

Stretching also helps. Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome taught me a trick or two I still use daily. The neck stretches mentioned above will help, too, and these stretches are a good place to start for the wrists. Wrist braces also work. I wear mine when typing or driving. I prefer Wellgate for Women -- these fit better and last longer than the usual ACE-style braces -- but ymmv depending on chromosome (though it's not like they're hot pink with little yellow flowers that spell out FOR THE LADIES or anything).

Tiger Balm is great for neck pain. Get the one marked Ultra Strength: the basic formula isn't strong enough and the "x-tra" is bright red, so it tends to stain. Icy Hot is equally effective, and doesn't smell nearly as strongly, but if you're anything like me you'll go through it a lot faster than the Tiger Balm.

Lastly, weight training will help in the long run. Building strength in the forearms, shoulders, and neck seems to make a difference, as does the range of motion involved. If nothing else, it'll improve your posture and sense of body awareness.
posted by vorfeed at 10:27 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I often have neck and back problems and exercising several times a week has helped immensely. Swimming helps a LOT, but I'd reccommend you do it more than once or twice a week. Yoga, aerobic exercise, weight training also will help. Basically I think that regular vigorous exercise is needed to counteract sitting slouched over a computer everyday. Only the very lucky would not develop neck/back problems after years of sitting this way without exercise (IMO).
posted by bearette at 10:52 PM on August 25, 2011

sorry, I just read that you have only been working in an office for the summer, not years. However, my advice still stands.
posted by bearette at 10:53 PM on August 25, 2011

Oh, yeah, and it's pretty easy to teach yourself to mouse with the left hand -- it's frustrating for the first day or two, but you catch on surprisingly quickly. It might help to switch for a week or two and see if that helps. The basic Wacom Bamboo tablet also makes a good substitute for a mouse, as the pen motion is more ergonomic. I've got a mouse on the left side of the keyboard and the tablet on the right, which makes it easy to switch back and forth.
posted by vorfeed at 10:54 PM on August 25, 2011

I got crunchy shoulders after a low speed fall, then bad posture at my home office desk, then being stuck at a tiny client desk for three months, then lots and lots of Kingdom Rush.

0) Where are you in Canada that you can't see a specialist soon? What kind of specialist? Is there not a local sports medicine clinic that you can just book on your own? In Ontario, the medical consult is covered under OHIP and the physio appointments should be covered by supplemental private insurance or, at worst, you keep all your receipts and claim them on your taxes, assuming you reach the threshold this year for medical expenses.

1) Relaxing, yoga, swimming and massage are all good ideas, especially for your neck (which may be a site of pain because of transferred stress from your shoulder).

2) Tiny, precise, low weight rehab exercises worked for me. I didn't try to lift big (which is generally awesome and correct), but used tiny weights (1-3 pounds, or filled 500 ml water bottles). Look for exercises like these.

Scaption: I bring my arms down to meet in front of my body, and only raise as high as I can without pain. TINY weights, move slowly, breathe. If you are gentle and patient, you may find you can work up to the range of motion shown in the video, but there is absolutely no need to rush this. Avoid pain during these exercises.

External Rotation: I do this one standing.

Just try those two daily, 10 reps to your natural range of motion, TINY weight like a 500 ml water bottle. If you feel OK, increase to 2, then 3 sets. Increase reps before you increase weights (up to 15-20 reps). If you add weight, drop to your 10 reps again and see how your body responds.
posted by maudlin at 12:17 AM on August 26, 2011

Stand up. I stacked cardboard boxes on top of my former desk and used a piece of melamine for a desktop for a year until our office moved and we had to buy new furniture. When we did that, we bought adjustable desks for everyone. Most in our office of 16 techies stand all day.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 12:45 AM on August 26, 2011

Next time you are at the swimming pool look for the spots where the pump returns the filtered water to the pool in a strong jet. Then stand with your back to that jet of water - move about as necessary.

Seconding the idea of changing your mouse hand.
Try some neck stretches like these.

Finally: check on any bags that you carry about with you. Anything which puts a strong weight on one shoulder only could be exacerbating your problems. Consider a backpack, something on wheels or just carrying about a lighter load.
posted by rongorongo at 2:35 AM on August 26, 2011

I already posted some Jolie Bookspan on Ask Metafilter the other week, but since finding her stuff it's has helped me massively with my shoulder pain from sitting at a computer hunched over all day (plus carrying a bag around on one shoulder).

How to Fix Your Neck, Shoulder, and Upper Back Pain.

I do the two exercises she recommends on that page regularly throughout the day, as well as the third stretch on this page (I sneak off into the kitchen so I don't look too mad pressing myself against a wall). That page has loads of good stretches.

You can see her advice for good posture at the computer here - in a nutshell, get your chair as far under the desk as possible, get your hip right back in the bottom of the chair and lean your upper back against the top of the chair. Use a lumbar roll if needed.

Following her advice has also really helped my migraines. I didn't realise how much of a forward head I had and how much I craned my neck. Just being aware makes a difference.
posted by Encipher at 2:36 AM on August 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found the exercises in Treat Your Own Neck helped. I also saw a huge improvement when I raised my monitor so I was staring at the centre of the screen.

Consider a stability ball for sitting. You'll probably want to switch slowly. Use it for an hour or two the first day, and ramp up so you're sitting on it all day.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:59 AM on August 26, 2011

I find that running loosens my neck and shoulder muscles. I find it helps to cut out caffeine and alcohol.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:30 AM on August 26, 2011

pretty bad pain in my neck, right shoulder and arm. It's sore and tight and my arm feels pretty strained.

The fact that the pain is concentrated on one side and in your arm/shoulder makes me suspect that the issue is one with your mouse set-up, and not with lack of lumbar support for your chair. I had a similar issue after my first year or two working in an office, and I was lucky enough to be working at a large company that would send out an ergonomics person to check my set-up. (Cheaper than paying for repetitive stress injury down the line, I suppose.) If you work at a company of more than 50 people, I'd definitely check with your office manager or whoever is in charge of ordering office equipment--I think companies don't often advertise that they do this, so that everyone doesn't ask, but there are entire companies that do nothing other than ergomic adjustment consulting so obviously a lot of companies are paying for it!

In case this helps, what the guy told me when he came out was that I had my keyboard and mouse WAY TOO HIGH, sitting on the desktop in front of my monitor. The ideal position I should be shooting for is to have my elbow at a 90 degree angle when sitting at my desk chair, pretty near my side, just as it would be when I was relaxing. (What I was doing when I used the mouse was having to hold my elbow up and out in order to move the mouse--which led to tightness and muscle strain in my shoulder and through my back.) This is why keyboard trays were invented. Because I'm a pretty tall person and the desks at my office aren't very tall, my keyboard tray is sitting nearly in my lap, which felt weird the first few days but helped SO MUCH.

Also, after I got my chair and keyboard tray into the right position, I ended up getting a trackball mouse like this. It helps keep my arm in the correct, relaxed, LOW position it needs to be in--if I can't move the mouse, I can't be stretching my arm out and end up with my elbow held up in the air for hours without noticing.

These two things together helped me 100% in resolving my shoulder/arm and back pain; might be worth trying to see if it helps you too. (Although getting an ergonomic expert to actually look at you and make suggestions would probably be best, if you can get it!)
posted by iminurmefi at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2011

To clarify my explanation above--check out the pictures on this OSHA site. In my first office job, I was situated very similar to Figure 2--see how the arm is stretched forward to grab at the mouse? That position for hours at a time (pretty easy to do in an office job!) led to a strained/painful muscle in my shoulder, and the shoulder tightness affected my back. Figure 3 shows a modified position that doesn't create the same strain.

Not sure there is much you can do right now to fix your strain other than rest and massage the muscle until it relaxes; however, if the ultimate issue is your sitting position at work you're going to have to fix that or the problem will just keep recurring.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:18 AM on August 26, 2011

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