By Dr. Tim Fargo
It is estimated that somewhere between 30% to 50% of Americans will experience neck pain in any given year. The statistics are a bit fuzzy though because there is not much consensus on its definition. Suffice it to say that neck pain is extremely common and is likely to become chronic once you start having it.
Neck pain is quite common because the neck is a particularly vulnerable bit of human anatomy. Think about it- we expect it to move sufficiently to look over either shoulder, at our shoes or up into the far reaches of the sky, but at the same time it must be rigid and supportive enough to hold a 12 to 15 pound ball balanced on top of it. The neck is composed of 7 bones which, by the way, is one of the hallmarks of all mammals, even giraffes. Those spinal bones are covered in a sheath of supportive tissue (ligaments), separated by cushions of cartilage called “disks”, and then the whole thing is wrapped in a network of muscles that both support and move the head in space. In addition, the neck is protecting the portion of the spinal cord that is right below the brain and serves as an information superhighway to the rest of the body. The neck has a big job to do and it is also very susceptible to injury and stress.
Car accidents, falls and other types of trauma can cause the head to exert tremendous force on the neck as the impact of rapid acceleration/deceleration creates damage to ligaments, muscles and even the disks. Whiplash injuries are like the old game we used to play as children called “crack the whip”, where the kid at the end of the line goes flying as the line turns. Poor posture associated with prolonged sitting and lack of support while sleeping can be a real pain the neck. Equally as significant, cell phone and computer use can cause tremendous chronic strain on the neck muscles, ligaments and disks. The thing that you must also know is that the soft tissues supporting the neck (ligaments and disks) are very plastic (capable of assuming the shape of deforming forces over time) and thus poor head posture can cause semi-permanent changes in the neck curve and, ultimately, damage.
Speaking of curves, you should know that when we look at someone from the front, their neck should be perfectly straight and the head should be neither tilted nor turned. When viewed from the side, there should be a gentle curve that serves to allow the neck to absorb shock and efficiently carry the load of that big, old ball, your head. Any alteration in the straightness when seen from the front, or the proper curve when seen from the side, will often cause or exacerbate neck pain and will, over time, cause accelerated wear and tear on tissues like the disks and the other spinal joints.
It is no wonder then that you and so many others suffer with either occasional or chronic neck pain. What can be done about it? Plenty! Here is a list of things that you can do:
- Sit with a more erect posture so that your head is not projecting or shifted forward, thus increasing the load on your neck.
- Make sure that your computer monitor is at the level of your chin when you are looking at it with good, erect posture. If you wear bifocals and find yourself lifting your head to see through the bottom of the lens, then get some monofocal readers just for the computer.
- Avoid spending endless hours looking down into your cell phone; this is one of the worst offenders and will have a disproportionate impact on children who start engaging in this behavior at a very young age. Think “text neck” here.
- Sleep on a pillow that, when you are on your back, gives the gentle curve in your neck some support and, when you are on your side, supports your head so that your neck is not bent either up or down.
- Do daily stretching of your neck. Take time to rotate both ways, tilt right and left pulling your ear to your shoulder, tilt forward and back fully, and then roll the head in both directions. Take your time with this and let the muscles stretch as you do it.
- If you come home from work or school and find that your neck is sore, do the exercises above and then lie on a rolled up towel for 5 or 10 minutes. You will be amazed how much better you will feel.
- Lastly, and this one is important, see a chiropractor who is trained to assess both the function of your spine and also look at the impact of trauma and posture on the structure/architecture of your spine.
Chiropractors can identify misalignments in your spine- we call these misalignments “subluxations”- and then work to restore proper motion to the spinal joints. They can also identify issues with the curvatures in your spine and the way it aligns with gravity. Once a proper evaluation of these factors is made, they use a combination of spinal “adjustments” and a range of other therapies to improve mobility, reduce inflammation, rebalance muscles, and restore the essential curve in your neck. Another great thing about chiropractic care is that chiropractors do not use drugs and can often prevent people from having to have surgery. Chiropractic care makes sense and it is statistically the safest form of healthcare on the planet. Go get some!
Dr. Tim Fargo is an Edina Chiropractor who practices in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and has done so for the past 38 years. He is the clinic director of Chiropractic Health and Wellness and the founder of ScoliTech™, a company devoted to the care of patients with scoliosis and other spinal disorders. He enjoys caring for people of all ages, but specializes in the treatment of scoliosis and postural imbalances. In addition, he has had extensive experience in treating hundreds of elite and professional athletes, including 15 years spent as the chiropractor for the Minnesota Vikings. He is a passionate educator who actively mentors chiropractic students and has delivered literally hundreds of lectures to the community on various wellness-related topics.