11 Surprising Things Making Your Neck Pain Worse
Take a big risk, and people say you’re sticking your neck out. If the risk doesn’t pay out, then you’re in up to your neck. Proverbs about the neck abound in English. And if you’ve ever dealt with neck pain, you know how important that strong, yet vulnerable section between your skull and your spine truly is.
Sadly, about half of us in the U.S. struggle with a significant bout of neck pain at some point. So if your neck hurts, you’re definitely not alone. You’re also not out of options.
So let’s talk about neck pain. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What’s in a neck
- Why the neck is an everyday superhero
- 11 surprising things making your neck pain worse
What’s in a neck
Necks are complex. Just ask the giraffe, whose neck weighs around 600 pounds! Like the giraffe’s — and pretty much every other mammal’s — your neck is crammed with seven vertebrae as well as muscles, ligaments, arteries, veins, nerves and joints.
The neck is a kind of Grand Central Station where multiple systems in the body run in parallel. Breathing, circulation, speaking, swallowing, nerve signaling and more — it all happens in the neck.
Why the neck is an everyday superhero
The vertebrae that make up the neck are collectively called the cervical spine, and are arranged in a gentle curve. The top two bones, called the axis and the atlas, cradle the skull and let it swivel, tip and turn through an incredible range of motion. Dozens of muscles, along with a bundle of ligaments and tendons, also help the head move. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but all those moving parts are also subject to a lot of strain.
How much strain? The average human head weighs between ten and eleven pounds, as much as a gallon of paint, which, when you think about it, is a lot to balance on a tower of bone no more than a few inches wide.
The neck’s superpowers become even more impressive when you consider how much time you probably spend with your neck positioned at an angle. Every degree you lean your head forward adds pounds more to the weight the neck is balancing. By the time your chin is tucked to your chest, your head is off-center by about 60 degrees, for a total of 60 pounds of force on your poor neck. That’s the same weight as a large microwave!
11 surprising things making your neck pain worse
So many things, from whiplash to a crick in the neck can cause neck pain. A lot of risk factors are at least somewhat under your control, however. So let’s dive into a few of the surprising reasons your neck might be hurting, along with what you can do to turn the pain around:
Staying too still
Powering through hours of driving or typing may seem virtuous, at least for productivity. But it takes a toll on your neck, which tires out as the hours tick by, increasing your risk of repetitive stress injuries and getting a stiff neck.
The fix: Move! Every hour or so, gently rotate your neck through its full range of motion. Up, back, side to side...you get the picture. In case not, here’s a helpful video.
Moving on repeat
Paradoxically, just as holding too still hurts your neck, so does too much repetitive motion. Computer-based professionals, factory workers, dancers, swimmers and other people who do the same sets of movements over and over have to be careful with their necks.
The fix: Periodically stretch. Follow tips for setting up your workstation, such as using the correct chair and keeping things within easy reach.
Slouching, slumping, tech neck and other posture problems
Slouching, folding your shoulders forward, falling out of alignment, you name it, it can all add up to a pain in the neck. We do it too, so we’re not trying to give you a guilt trip.
A particular posture problem happens when you tuck your neck. Decidedly less stylish than a turtleneck, tech neck (also called “text neck”) is what often happens when you peer at your smartphone. A lot of us hold our phones low and close to our bodies, so we tip our chins at an acute angle, which only increases the neck’s load. Over time, tech neck can add up to repetitive stress injuries.
The fix: Don’t think of good posture as a punishment, but as a vacation for your neck and spine. Keep your chin up, shoulders back, and abs slightly tight, with your head balanced directly over your body as much as possible.
Also try holding your phone higher. Tech neck happens with laptop users too, so if you work on computers a lot, try standing desks, using exterior monitors or typing on an auxiliary keyboard so you can keep your screen at eye level. (As a bonus, you’ll also be keeping ring-like wrinkles from developing around your neck as quickly.)
Struggling with stress
Stress can be a pervasive part of our everyday lives. When stressed, many of us tense our shoulders, often inadvertently clenching our neck muscles as well. All that tension can lead to headaches, strain and general soreness.
The fix: It helps to determine if your stress is due to physical or emotional causes, so a doctor’s visit may help. So do small things, like stretching, as well as bigger things, like getting into the habit of exercising regularly. Yoga, meditation, biofeedback, muscle relaxants prescribed by a doctor and professional therapy can also help with stress and tension headaches.
Cracking that neck
The joints in your knuckles and neck contain fluid-filled sacs that cavitate (release liquid as a gas) when you “crack” them. For some, cracking eases tension and discomfort, even sometimes releasing endorphins, or at least a satisfying noise.
As far as experts can tell, some cracking is OK. A lot of cracking, on the other hand, can tax the joints, overstretch the ligaments and potentially contribute to neck problems such as osteoarthritis.
The fix: Crack in moderation. Try regular slow, steady stretches, not just abrupt motions. If your neck feels “weird” or unusually painful, you may also want to visit your doctor to check on anything unusual going on, such as degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, arthritis, or pinched nerves.
You probably already know that smoking isn’t exactly what the doctor prescribes. Still, some people smoke to deal with stress, to socialize, or simply because cigarettes can be very addictive.
While smoking isn’t considered healthy in general, it’s particularly bad for the delicate tissues in your neck. Steady smokers often experience much higher levels of neck pain and soreness than non-smokers, and also tend to heal more slowly.
The fix: If you smoke, consider making a pros and cons list of what it does for you. If you want to quit, many resources can help with that.
Donning big hats or heavy-duty helmets
The more weight the head bears, the more strain the neck struggles with. An elaborate hat can make a big statement, but can also undermine your neck as it tries to do its job. In the same vein, cumbersome helmets that are heavier than they need to be can hurt, too.
The fix: As with most things, moderation is key. Choose big-hat days wisely. Figure out whether a lighter helmet could still offer the same degree of protection. And take pain relievers if necessary.
Toting heavy purses and messenger bags
Busy people need to carry lots of things. Laptops, phones, wallets, snacks, sunscreen, glasses, medication...the list goes on and on. That weight adds up, and before you know it, you could be carrying enough to cause shoulder pain and strain your neck, particularly if you tend to sling your bag over the same shoulder.
The fix: For a start, alternate shoulders. As a rule of thumb, don’t load your bag with more than five percent of your body weight. If you need to carry more, a different bag style might be a better pick, like a backpack or a bag that rolls.
Wearing unsupportive shoes
And no, we’re not just picking on high heels. Any kind of shoe that doesn’t fit correctly, whether it’s too narrow, too short, or too flat, could strain your musculoskeletal system. Unsupportive shoes pass strain straight to your neck, since the spinal column shifts out of alignment to compensate.
The fix: Shoes that fit! A good pair of inserts can fix a favorite pair of shoes that doesn’t support you quite well enough.
Going to bed
We know sleep is important. Most of us need six to eight hours of it. But sleep is best when it supports your neck, which usually means sleeping on your side or your back, if possible. Surprisingly, getting too much rest can hurt, too, since it keeps your neck still so long it can get sore.
Finally, many of us grind our teeth in our sleep, sometimes out of stress and sometimes only out of habit. Grinding puts a lot of wear and tear on already challenged neck muscles (and isn’t good for those teeth, either.) Bed isn’t always a safe place for a weary neck!
The fix: Specialized pillows take the burden of supporting your head off your neck. Some people prefer orthopedic pillows or cervical ones, while others pick feather pillows. Whichever pillow you choose, replace it regularly.
If you’re waking up sore, experiment with different sleeping positions. If you notice you’re grinding, you might want to talk to your doctor or dentist. They can give you tips, and a mouth guard may help as well.
Working too hard and playing too hard
The neck is so good at handling everyday strain, we can often take it for granted. Then we try to do seasonal chores, like reaching overhead to paint or clean gutters, or get too rambunctious playing with kids or grandkids, and we discover the neck’s limitations the hard way.
The fix: Slow and steady keeps the neck pain-free. When you do tasks that aren’t part of your normal routine, ease into them and take regular breaks so your neck isn’t overly taxed.
When playing tennis, catching airborne grandkids, or doing other activities that put a sudden amount of torque on your neck, remember to warm up, keep heavy weight close to your body when possible, and minimize abrupt movements. If something painful does happen, consider physical therapy.
To sum it up
The neck is both complex and completely amazing. It’s worthy of respect and support, so we recommend taking good care of it. Not that we’re breathing down your neck of course — in the fight against neck pain, we just want you to come out ahead.
Your neck pain and Clearing
If persistent neck pain is part of your everyday life, we’d like to help change that. Clearing offers customized plans to address chronic pain, including neck pain, that can include a prescription compound cream, personalized exercises, nutraceuticals, CBD cream, health coaching and access to pain specialists who can help guide you toward being pain-free. Take the first step today.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.