Neck pain and the computer hunch
Your days are spent at a desk, behind a computer, peering at the screen. Before that it was staring into a phone screen on the train. Or slumped behind the wheel of a car. By mid-afternoon, the neck pain can be unbearable. Your upper back between the shoulders feels so tight. Your head is throbbing and aching.
Trying to roll the neck to ease the neck pain helps a little. As does trying to pull arms backwards to open the chest. Standing up and a short walk helps, but your back aches as it seems like it’s become unused to movement, it struggles to stand upright. It’s temporary relief before back into more sitting, more work and more stress before the day has a chance to finish. Back to being hunched in front of that computer, the posture your body has become too accustomed to…
You realise your muscles are out of balance, but so many seem “out”. And the stretches you do don’t seem to change anything
Chances are, your body probably has a muscle imbalance known as “upper crossed syndrome” (and probably also “lower crossed syndrome”). With upper crossed syndrome, muscles in the shoulders and chest are tight and strong, while muscles in the neck and upper back are inhibited (or pulled taut and weak).
The desk slouch
The overall posture problem is probably clear just by looking at how many sit in front of a computer (or on the train, peering into their phone). But let’s break it down:
- The first thing you might notice is forward head posture. The head is jutting forward of the shoulders.
- The next thing that may be obvious is a hunched, much more curved, upper back (thoracic kyphosis).
- The shoulders will also be very rounded, pulled well forward, adding to the hunched appearance. The shoulders are probably also tight and “up around the ears”, thanks to the chest being tight and pulling everything forward.
- With these going on, the natural angle of the head would be looking at the ground (or, dare I say, into the screen of a mobile phone). To be able to look forward often results in a rather a sharp angle at the neck (cervical lordosis).
- Often less obvious, hidden under clothes, is a winging of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder blades stick out like wings.
The really scary thing is that in fashion magazines this type of posture is seen as fashionable !! Shoulder blades sticking out and collarbones really evident – with awful posture – is somehow desirable ?!?!?!
How does it feel ?
Neck pain with stiff, achy shoulders as a starting point…
The pull forward of the head, with the angle of the head to be able to see forward, will start to result in neck pain. This, in turn, leads to headaches. Combined with those tight shoulders, turning your head to the side becomes more difficult. The whole upper body needs to turn to be able to look over your shoulder.
That neck pain is likely to extend to your upper back. More specifically, you’ll probably be pointing to the area between your shoulder blades feeling tight and constantly aching. Moving your arms will probably feel harder, with movement feeling limited around the shoulder and shoulder blades. The shoulders probably feel painful too !
If you continue with this posture, especially with a sharp angle at the neck, then nerves often start to be impacted. This may seem confusing, as the nerve pain may not actually be felt in the neck – it may be the arm or the jaw that’s feeling numbness, pain, weakness or tingling.
Curvature of the mid-back (kyphosis of the thoracic spine) may also increase, which can lead to rib pain and reduced movement of the ribcage area. As the whole abdominal area becomes squashed, lung capacity may feel reduced, breathing becomes a little bit harder…
What’s going on with the muscles ?
Some of the muscles involved are tight and strong. The muscles opposite are pulled taut (like a tightrope) and too weak to counter the strong ones.
First, the muscles in the chest and neck area are tight and strong. Muscles in the chest between the shoulders (the pectorals) pull the shoulders forward. If you push on the chest muscle near your underarm, it’ll probably feel quite tender. The big muscles on each side of the front of the neck (the sternocleidomastoid or SCM) pull your head forward. You’ll feel these from the start of your collarbone going up to near your ear. And the muscle that runs from your shoulder to the back of your neck (the upper trapezius) pulls your shoulder up. If you try to turn your head, you’ll feel restriction in the front/side of neck or back of neck – or both.
Together, these muscles pull the shoulders up toward the ears, pull the whole shoulders and chest forward, bringing the head with it.
Trying to fight back but failing are muscles of the upper back. The mid-back, between the shoulder blades (lower trapezius, rhomboids) will feel achy and tight as it’s pulled like a tightrope. Muscles underneath the shoulder blades (serratus) also ache, and aren’t strong enough to keep the shoulder blades from “winging”. Also not strong enough against shoulder and neck muscles are the deep neck flexors (longus capitus and longus colli).
What to do about it ?
I’d love to say the solution is stretch stretch stretch ! But stretching alone is not going to give lasting results – especially when some of those muscles are weak and already pulled taut.
Those over-tight, strong muscles need to be coaxed to let go, so that stretching can have some lasting impact. Also, those weak, taut muscles need a little nudge so that they know it’s safe to start working again, so that some strength work can help them be strong enough to work in unison with their antagonists.
And, of course, ensure your desk is set up properly to avoid falling into that posture (perhaps more on that another day).
Bowen Therapy is one of the most gentle and effective treatments for helping those tight muscles “let go” and those weak/taut muscles “spring into life”, bringing balance back to the body.
Some of my clients have been surprised what a little change to addressing their upper-crossed muscle imbalance can do:
“does this seem strange ? I feel like I’m taller !”
“my brother came to visit and looked at me, then asked “are you taller, sis ?””
“I can turn my head again, without turning my whole upper body”
“nope, no neck pain, no headaches or migraines the past week” (which then became months)