Readers of my column know how I enjoy relating my own experiences with patients and their various problems (as well as my own injuries and strains/sprains) and transforming that into a healthy “lesson” for everyone. As much as I love to treat patients, I would be delighted knowing my advice helped prevent someone from having to see me in my office.
Recently my wife and I discovered a new passion-birding, or as most people would describe it – bird watching. As you can imagine, this involves a significant amount of time looking upward. Sometimes, the excitement of finding that certain bird overtakes your awareness of the stresses your neck is sustaining with such prolonged periods of time keeping your head backward bent. Just this past weekend, we completed a 3 hour bird walk, and it is likely half of that time was spent with our heads bent backward, gazing at the trees and birds through binoculars. I realized the effect this can have the following day when all of my neck muscles were sore.
Of course, a lot of folks spend at least that amount of time and more with their heads and necks bent forward looking down while working, gardening, or using a computer.
In fact, this is an often discussed topic at the orthopedic spinal conferences I attend.
Since we are a culture enveloped in the use of computers and smart phones, our posture continues to decline, as we constantly accommodate our bodies to these devices, leaning forward and rounding our shoulders. All of this leads to mechanical stresses on the muscles, ligaments and discs in the neck. Most of the patients I see for neck and upper back pain have poor posture that is likely reinforced by the activities I referenced above.
Imagine trying to hold a bowling ball at arms length away from your body. Your arm and shoulder muscles would get very tired quickly, and they would be subject to more serious injury such as strains which are caused by microscopic tearing of the tissues. But, if you could bring the bowling ball in toward your body, it would be less stressful and fatiguing to hold. Well, with all due respect, your head is the bowling ball. The farther forward or backward it goes, the more work the muscles have to do to hold it in that position. This sets the stage for the strains I described.
The key to preventing these injuries is awareness of when you are in these positions.
If your head is backward bent for some time, gently bend it forward, bringing your chin to your chest for 10 seconds. Perhaps you have been “slumped” over your laptop or notepad, with your head pushed forward for hours. Tuck your chin inward toward your throat, making your neck “longer”. Hold that for 10 seconds to reverse all of that forward stress. Try to do this every 30 minutes.
Another great exercise for the neck is to lie on the floor with a bath towel rolled up under the neck as a pillow. Gently turn your head as far as you comfortably can to each side slowly 10 times. This is great way to stretch many of the neck muscles.
So the next time you “stick your neck out”, remember to not let it stay there too long, or you might end up having to spend some time with your bird-watching physical therapist!
News Journal Article for Publication 6/12/2012
John Bradley, PT