Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Office workers and their Necks

More people than ever sit in front of a computer for a living these days, and if you're reading this it's likely that you're one of them. So before you get back to being productive for your boss, let's review some ways you can spare your neck in the process.
First, the basics: Your head weighs, on average, about 12 pounds. You have a fairly complicated series of joints and muscles holding that weight off your shoulders and giving you the freedom to look around. Like every other complicated system, the more moving parts to deal with, the more likelihood for something to go wrong. Some of the muscles that get tweaked and stretched when your head moves too far forward (the classic computer posture) are the deep flexor muscles. That would be these guys:
These muscles work in concert with others in the posterior part of your neck to give both stability and freedom of movement to the head. They also get beat up when we get our heads too far forward and keep them there all day, like you may very well be doing right now. Interesting fact--every inch forward your head moves takes three times more power to support the weight. Makes sense--if you hold a bowling ball close to your body it's easier to support than holding it out in front. And your head weighs about the same as a bowling ball. No disrespect.

Eventually, certain muscles get too tight which causes others to turn off ("reciprocal inhibition," again). This happens because muscles activated on one side of a joint cause the muscles on the other side of the same joint to become inhibited--when you flex your bicep, your tricep has to turn off so you can perform the movement. Your neck is no different, and when it happens for hours on end in only one direction neck pain is often the result. This is sometimes referred to as "upper crossed syndrome." It looks like this:
Upper crossed syndrome can lead to a wide variety of pain and instability problems, including shoulder pain, pain around the shoulder blades (especially at the upper, inside border), and, of course, neck pain. None of which is very fun. 

Incidentally, the shoulder pain I just referred to is more than just pain, it's lack of stability. The shoulder blades are essentially the reason your shoulders move the way they do, and the serratus anterior muscles you can see in that picture (the ones that get inhibited) are important when it comes to stabilizing your shoulder joint. If they get turned off and you go try throw a softball around or swing a racket of some kind you could be in for some shoulder issues. More on that in a future post.
An ounce of prevention, as they say, so let's look at the exercise I give every patient with neck pain who walks in the door here: The Brugger. This is done while sitting on the edge of your chair. Step one--tuck your chin straight back while keeping your eyes nice and level. This will create a really nice double chin that you can be proud of. Step two--try and keep your head in position while placing your palms in a a forward facing position with your arms slightly bent and back a little. You should feel a nice stretch where your chest connects to your shoulders.You'll be in this position at the end of the movement: Hold this position for three deep breaths and then go on about your business.

Sometimes the neck pain associated with the upper crossed syndrome is due to joint restrictions in your neck. Static postures held for hours on end can cause the joints to stop moving like they should, which can often lead to pain. Classically, the base of the neck (where your neck connects to your body) gets locked up, and when the muscles of the shoulders join the party to protect the compromised joint, the combination drives people to my office. The joint right at the base of the skull is another key location for dysfunction, and the combination of those locations can cause blistering headaches with a fairly predictable pattern, such as this:
Fortunately, those headaches respond quickly to manipulation of the affected joints, especially when combined with soft tissue work to release the trigger points in the muscles. I recently had a patient leave the office with tears of joy welling up in her eyes because her chronic headache had disappeared for the first time in about a year. 

So do your Bruggers, and take your eyes of the screen and focus on something on the other side of the room while you do them. This will help your back, neck, shoulders, and your eyes, too. Why don't you start now? And if the headaches have already begun, and this doesn't make them go away, come see me at Heathrow Chiropractic. Tell 'em the blog sent you!