The neck does a tough job, considering it holds up the same weight as a bowling ball all day, every day. It comprises the bones at the top of the spine, and muscles and ligaments that support the head, which weigh approximately 11 pounds. For individuals who spend long hours using computers, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) of the neck are a common problem. Typically, computer-use-induced neck pain is often associated with poor computer desk setup.
This article offers valuable insights into neck pain, the causes of neck pain when using a computer, how to reduce pain through proper posture, and exercise routines that can help in alleviating neck pain.
Neck Pain: Definition
Neck pain often comes from the base of the skull to the upper part of the back. It extends laterally to the cervical paraspinal muscles of the shoulders and periscapular muscles that stabilize and facilitate vertical movements of the scapula.
Causes of Neck Pain
Since the neck supports the head, it’s always at risk of injuries and conditions that cause pain and affect motion. In turn, an individual’s activities of daily living (ADL) become negatively affected. Some causes of neck pain include:
- Muscle strains – Prolonged use of desktop computers can strain neck muscles. Too many hours hunched over the computer not only causes neck pain, but also strains the muscles in the back, upper back, and lower back.
- Pinched nerves – A herniated disc or bone spur in the cervical vertebrae can press against the nerves stemming from the spinal cord, resulting in pain.
- Worn joints – Like other joints in the body, neck joints tend to wear as one ages. As these joints wear and tear, the body responds by forming bone spurs that significantly limit motion and cause pain.
- Injuries – Rear-end car accidents can cause the head to jerk backward and forwards suddenly, resulting in whiplash injury. When this happens, the soft tissues of the neck become strained and painful.
- Diseases – Diseases and conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and meningitis, can cause neck pain.
Reasons for Neck Pain When Sitting at a Computer
As mentioned earlier, frequent and extended computer operation is associated with neck pain. The following are reasons one may experience neck pain when sitting at a computer.
Many people only have the option to sit at their workstations for many hours. That causes postural strain on the neck, shoulders, and back. As you begin to experience soreness, the cervical paraspinal and muscles around the spine become tense. Prolonged sitting in the same posture causes muscle fatigue and pain. As a result, the surrounding muscles start to contract to compensate for the fatigue in the primary stabilizing muscles. This can result in significant pain and muscle guarding on the neck and upper back.
Poor Desk Setup
One of the primary prevention strategies for neck pain is addressing environmental exposure to ergonomic risk factors, such as the desk setup. With a high desk, you’ll need to compensate by shrugging your shoulders to raise your forearms, hands, and wrists to the appropriate level. After some time, your neck muscles fatigue and begin to spasm. When these muscles become tight, the effect is usually felt in the suboccipital muscles at the base of the skull. That can result in a headache at the base of the skull and may extend to the front of the head as the symptoms worsen.
On the other hand, if the desk is too low, you’ll be forced to flex your carpal tunnel to use the keyboard. That also requires you to extend the neck more than normal so you can view the computer monitor – a position known as forward neck posture. This posture shortens the suboccipital muscles at the base of the skull, leading to neck pain, muscle spasms, and headaches.
Poor Monitor Setup
Another cause of neck pain can include poor positioning of the monitor. You should place the monitor at or slightly below eye level to ensure a neutral spine position of the neck. All monitors come with a stock stand attached to the screen, but the caveat is that most are non-adjustable.
A Non-Ergonomic Office Chair
The chair you use while sitting in front of a computer can be the cause of neck pain. It’s critical to invest in a proper office chair. There are many models of office chairs on the market. However, it’s essential to go for an ergonomic chair with adjustment flexibility and proper postural support.
Most people ignore stress as a cause of neck pain. The fact is that stress can amplify the effects of other risk factors. When we experience stress, the shoulders tend to shrug or elevate as part of the body’s flight response. Such a position fatigues the muscles around the neck and upper back, leading to muscle guarding, and thus, neck pain.
Proper Setup and Posture of a Computer Desk
The following are ways you can prevent neck, back, upper back, and lower back pain when sitting at a computer desk:
Postural Stability and Endurance
Find an ergonomic chair that can properly support your lower back to prevent slouching. First, ensure you sit in the chair fully, such that your back touches the lower part of the chair’s backrest. Next, make sure your low back curve is supported by the curve of the backrest. Additionally, your hips and knees should be bent to 90 degrees. Your torso should be upright with your elbows positioned at a neutral position on the armrests.
Proper Desk Setup
Adjust the desk to a height that you can easily reach when your arms are at your side and elbows bent to 90 degrees. The desk should also be large enough to accommodate the computer and any peripheral devices, such as the keyboard and mouse. It should have adequate depth to allow you to place the monitor at least 20 inches from your eyes to prevent eye strain.
Appropriate Monitor Position
For a monitor that’s too low, adjust its height by propping it on a small shelf or box such that the height is at eye level. A better solution is to use a monitor mount that you can attach to the back of the screen. It should have adjustment flexibility to enable you to set the screen to the appropriate height and distance from your eyes.
Proper Chair Adjustment
After acquiring an ergonomic, adjustable chair, ensure you adjust the armrests to support the natural position of your elbows when your arms are at your sides with the shoulders relaxed. Ensure the chair’s arms aren’t too high or too low. This way, you can avoid postural strain on the neck and upper back muscles. The chances are that your chair has an adjustable height. Ensure you adjust its height to fit the desk’s height. Find a chair that allows you to sit with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent at 90 degrees.
Managing work-related stress can significantly reduce neck pain while working. The following are strategies you can use to alleviate stress:
- Set realistic deadlines and break down projects into smaller and more manageable steps to avoid working under pressure to meet tight deadlines.
- Adopt a daily mindfulness meditation routine to take a step back from work and reduce stress.
- Do stretching exercises and positional release techniques for the suboccipital muscles to avoid headaches associated with postural strain. To do that, you’ll need a small towel roll. Lie on your back quietly in a dark room and place the towel roll under the base of your skull, allowing it to press against the suboccipital muscles gently. While in the lying position, focus your breathing on slow, deep breaths for 10-15 minutes.
Neck pain is one of the commonly reported WRMSDs after working at a computer for a prolonged time. A combination of factors, such as postural strain, poor desk setup, monitor height, seating posture, and stress, can cause neck, back, upper, and lower back pain. It’s critical to know which of these factors causes your symptoms. This way, you can implement the corrective measures as soon as possible. Generally, you can reduce or prevent neck pain by ensuring your equipment is set up properly. It’s also critical to manage or modify your workflow to prevent postural strain.
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At Cawley Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation, we provide each patient with tailored, comprehensive, and skilled physical therapy. We not only treat your pain but we also fix the root causes of your problem.
Our friendly physical therapists can treat all types of orthopedic-related conditions, from neurological problems to headaches, neck pain, motor function, and balance. Contact us today for a free pain assessment with one of our certified therapists.