ways to help fix a sore neck?
November 13, 2005 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Neck Problems: Best ways for a young guy to take care of what are becoming chronic neck problems? Stretches, massages, supports, new pillows, etc? Surely some of you computer folks have had issues similar to mine.

I'm 22, and have spent the majority of my days stuck behind a computer monitor since I was a little kid. I never developed any neck problems until about two years ago when I would stay up late cranking out programming assignments in college. I now work for a software company where I spend 40 hours a week at a computer, plus a few hours a day outside of work.

Things got bad a year ago. I regularly carried a lot of weight in a messenger bag. This weight put a lot of strain on one shoulder and one side of my neck. I actually developed an occasional numbness that would creep up the strained side of my neck to the side of my face. The numbness made it such that I could no longer wear contacts in my left eye, they just felt too weird.

The doctor said that these kinds of things were normal for someone in my situation, and that I had to start paying more attention to my posture. He also gave me muscle relaxants for days that the neck is really acting up. I've been a lot better about my posture at home, and set up my desk and chair at work to be better ergonomically. I've also been working with a trainer on my upper back, shoulders, etc. This seems to be helping, as things are much better than they wore 6 months ago. I might start wearing contacts again soon.

However, things still aren't perfect. Some days my neck just feels bad. I often crack things in my neck when I turn my head, much like some people crack their knuckles. It's weird, and people who I do it in front of get creeped out. So, now I'm considering what the next step is. Since I don't seem to be doing any further damage to my neck, I need to help the damage that's already been done.

Things I'm considering include going in for neck/shoulder massages, applying regular ice/heat, and sleeping with a soft neck brace.

Advice? Thanks.
posted by adamk to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've had chronic neck pain since last winter. From lifting heavy things while moving to a new home. I saw my pcp, took painpills, saw physical therapist, saw chiropractor, but the only thing that really helped, much to my skeptical surprise, was acupuncture. it really helped relieve the pain, though not permanently. i go weekly. other factors may be involved in neck pain, like stress, emotional issues, at least for me.
posted by madstop1 at 3:57 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a herniated disc in my neck. I do stretching and strengthening exercises when I remember to, and when it's bothering me (you might want to see a physiotherapist for one or two sessions to learn the exercises), I sleep with a neck roll instead of a pillow most nights, and I take muscle relaxants and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin) at the first sign of trouble (because if I let it get bad, I'm in for a week or more of pain). Make sure that you get up, stretch and walk around at least once an hour when you're working at a desk (set a timer if need be), my neck always gets worse if I'm so into work that I forget to get up and stretch.

Meditation, yoga or any kind of stress-relieving relaxing exercise is a real help, I have had neck problems forever and my shoulder muscles compensate by having a default setting of "tense enough to bounce a quarter off", I need to consciously work on relaxing my upper body, and I need to do it a few times a day. When I was doing yoga regularly, my neck was great, now that I've slacked off, it bothers me. Above all, do EVERYTHING to do with your neck slowly and gently, necks are very delicate.
posted by biscotti at 3:59 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

i too was skeptical about acupuncture, but have been very pleased with the results. whenever i get a bad bout of "stiff neck" i go get a treatment, and it definitely helps.
posted by judith at 4:05 PM on November 13, 2005

I've found having a proper pillow (as in, a v-neck pillow) helps a ton. Regular flat pillows are really head unfriendly in general.
posted by wackybrit at 4:43 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I had the same difficulty in my late 20s. I started taking yoga classes and the problem went completely away.
posted by jimfl at 4:45 PM on November 13, 2005

i'm having similar problems (after a move and some ill-advised lifting). i'm doing three specific things: (1) chiropractor - just having an x-ray so i could visualize what was really off-kilter has been a good source of motivation to keep the posture correct; (2) training - i'm not there yet, but i suspect that getting certain muscles in better shape will help keep the spine aligned; (3) glucosamine - all information i can find suggests that this suppliment can help with joint/soft-tissue problems. most people seem to take it for knees, but i'm giving it a go for the back/neck...hopefully it will help.

i'm curious about the accupuncture, but haven't tried that yet.
posted by garfy3 at 5:14 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

The most important thing I've done to overcome arm, neck, and shoulder problems has been fixing my furniture. Get your desk setup ergonomically (I won't attempt to define that here) get yourself a real chair, get your keyboard at the right height. You're only 22 so you probably don't have too much experience with the creaks that come with aging (I only have a little more) but one thing that's important to keep in mind is that injury can develop in one place because of a misalignment in another place. For example, your neck may be sore because you don't have both feet on the floor when you work. You like to sit with one leg crossing the other, which puts a tilt in your hips, which shifts your weight onto one side, so you tend to lean on one armrest, which means your neck has to hold your head up all day to keep it from falling left. Since you're right-handed, this is your mouse arm, and the combination of tension from your mouse arm to your neck plus the off-kilter positioining is killing you. Just an example but the point is to try thinking holistically. The way you sleep may be as important as anything.

It's a hell of a lot more effective to consider causes than to seek remedies. Massage is great but it won't save you in the end. And beware of ibuprofen. You can't pop that shit 4 times a day for the rest of your life. Read the bottle.
posted by scarabic at 5:29 PM on November 13, 2005 [2 favorites]

I have neck problems, often aggravated by how I sleep. I have found a buckwheat hull pillow and sleeping on my back with pillow under my knees helpful. The buckwheat hulls are hypoallergenic and act like a bean bag under my neck. I try to keep my head in alignment with my neck. It's hard to get used to your head being so low after years of regular pillows. It took me awhile, and now I can't sleep without it.

I try and do stretches throughout the day to help things. It sounds like you workout plan is a great start. Good luck!
posted by 6:1 at 5:42 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I had lower back pain and started doing Tai Chi every day. Check out a dvd by Scott Cole (for beginners) or Terrence Dunn (for more advanced) to see if it's for you. A lot of back pain comes from stress and just doing these meditative movements every day has drastically reduced my back pain - and my stress.
posted by any major dude at 5:45 PM on November 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Suffered for ten years with chronic neck pain. I concentrated on strengthening my neck and shoulders with weight training. The stronger my neck got the less pain I had. But it took time, and I did it with proper supervision from a trainer.

Massage was a life saver on bad days.

As stated above, avoid one position and repetitive movements for prolonged periods. If you are at a desk it should be easy to do all sorts of neck stretches/movements.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:50 PM on November 13, 2005

Get your eyes checked. About a year ago, I developed these intense and unceasing neck pains. It turned out that I hadn't updated my eyeglasses prescription in about two or three years and my eye muscles and, as a consequence, the rest of the muscles in my skull and neck were overworking themselves and straining to correct my vision.
You say that you spend a lot of time in front of the computer. That'll put a strain on your eyes and cause some serious neck and head ache.
As soon as I got my prescription fixed, my neck pain went away. Permanently.

Good luck.
posted by Jon-o at 6:12 PM on November 13, 2005

I'm a big time neck cracker (how many crkcrkcrkcrkcrks can you get in a row?).

Stretches my ex registered massage therapist suggested: Back/neck straight, look 45' to your left, tilt head down. Center, look 45' to right, tilt head down. Look, tilt, repeat.

I went and spent more money than I could afford on some (heavy) down pillows. I've not regretted it in any way whatsoever.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 6:39 PM on November 13, 2005

Are you fit, do you exercise, get regular activity for these muscles? If not, you had better start or you are likely facing life long issues. Specific exercises can address today's issue, but in general any exercise which helps tone the muscles in this area will help. Also, learn to take breaks. Get up every 20 minutes or so for a few minutes, and if you can't do that make sure you get up and move around at least every hour or two.
posted by caddis at 7:45 PM on November 13, 2005

I highly recommend the neck stretches from Active Isolated Stretching. You can find them in The Wharton's Stretch Book.
posted by callmejay at 8:15 PM on November 13, 2005

As others have said, regular exercise and stretching is the key.

But if you are like the typical geek, the problem in my experience will be getting yourself to do it on a regular basis - so it's important to find something that is fun and gives you goals to work towards. For me, Karate does this perfectly, as I've found all sorts of gymnastics I tried before so pointless and boring that my lazy self just quit...
posted by uncle harold at 3:41 AM on November 14, 2005

if you don't excercise for 1/2-1 hour a day, do so. get a personal trainer for a month or two to show you the ropes.

if you can, get a standing desk with a drafter's chair. after awhile you'll spend the majority of your day standing.
posted by raaka at 5:37 AM on November 14, 2005

Most important thing: regular breaks. Don't work more than an hour without getting up, moving around and stretching. (Consider starting with every half hour.) People like to talk about ergonomics first, but posture and taking breaks are more important than your equipment. That said, ergonomic equipment is much better than unergonomic equipment.

You've given up the messenger bag, right? Better to sacrifice fashion with a backpack or lumbar pack than your health.

Watch the upper body usage outside of work, too. For now, don't help your friends move, mix chocolate-chip cookie dough by hand, or otherwise perform strenuous or repetitive tasks.

Cut transfats out of your diet -- shortening (including flaky crusts on most cheap food)/hydrogenated vegetable oil (including pretty much all junk food and much processed food)/restaurant fried foods (the heat changes the polyunsaturated oil they usually use to transfats -- food lightly fried in fresh canola oil or grapeseed oil at home is fine.) Transfats feed inflammation.

Drink tea made from grated ginger -- ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory.

Ice and take NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen) when your neck is bad, but after your work is done and you're resting. You don't want to numb the warning signs.

Eat well in general.

Get enough sleep (key.)

Good massage and chiropractic can help a lot (though I'll be flamed for the latter assertion.)

I found acupunture great for topical pain relief.

It's great that you're working with a trainer, but make sure you work on your core muscles too. Consider pilates (a couple of things you might want to modify or not do, but most of it will be fine.) Add aerobic exercise to the mix.

(Generally everything that improves general health will help; everything that hurts it will hurt.)

I started off with occasional RSI pain in my 20's, and kept ignoring it, and by the time I was in 30, I was crippled, in non-stop pain from fingertip to shoulder in both arms. A dozen doctors told me to never expect to fully recover. I took more than a year off of work, changed everything in my life, and I'm fully recovered. It's hard for me to see people complaining of RSI pain without jumping up and down about how bad it can get if it goes unchecked. I hate the idea of anyone needlessly going through what I did.

Read Pain Free by Pete Egoscue and Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome by Sharon Butler (don't worry that the title refers to CTS -- the exercises in the book cover all manner of RSIs.)

Here's an article I wrote for a writing magazine a while back about RSI.

Get a tempurpedic cervical pillow.

So how is your posture? Are you successful in keeping your head resting directly on your spine? If you're still hunching forward and letting it hang, then THAT is the first thing to change. And be sure to take focus breaks too -- the usual advice is every 20 minutes, focus on something 20 feet away.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:28 AM on November 14, 2005 [2 favorites]

i had similar issues with one side of my neck and back and have had great success with something called the Nucca treatment. it involves making sure your head is on straight. i know this sounds crazy but believe me, no amount of exercise and posture self-discipline will help you if your spine and skull are out of alignment.

i was a forceps baby and have had troubles all my life but it is not unusal for later stresses to put things out of whack, including your self-diagnosis of carrying a too-heavy messenger bag.

if I hadn't found a Nucca practitioner I would have had surgery to "drain my sinuses" which is what the MD's wanted to do to fix my chronic head and neck aches. Since my first treatment (I still need adjusted from time to time, usually after I have an accident of some kind) I haven't had a single headache.

Good luck!
posted by macinchik at 1:58 PM on November 14, 2005

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