During a consultation with a new patient, one of the most common comments I hear from a patient that is trying to describe their pain is, “I don’t understand why I have this pain, I didn’t do anything!” It is human nature to look for a singular cause, the smoking gun that led to our problem. People usually think that they had to have some type of trauma, like a fall or car accident, to cause their pain. However, most patients I see, do not have a trauma that led directly to their pain. In my experience, neck and lower back pain is most often caused by our daily activities. The things that we do over and over again and don’t even think about. In this post, I’ll discuss the three most common everyday activities that lead to neck and back pain, and give you tips on how to make sure they don’t lead to pain for you in the future.
#1. Workplace Ergonomics
The vast majority of Americans now spend a minimum of eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer. If you then combine that with the time they spend sitting in a car on their way to work, most Americans can easily spend in excess of ten hours every day sitting. This is in stark contrast to what our ancestors were doing a thousand, or even a hundred, years ago. Our bodies simply were not made for such a sedentary lifestyle. We were made to be up and moving around. That being said, in today’s society, I understand that most of us are forced into this type of work, so how can we make the most out of a bad situation?
Most importantly, you need to make sure that your desk is set up as ergonomically as possible. When you are seated, first make sure that you are sitting with your weight evenly distributed on both of your gluteal muscles. This means that you should not be sitting with your legs crossed or with one leg tucked underneath you. This can cause an imbalance in your pelvis, which can lead to lower back pain. If you can adjust the height of your chair, you should raise your chair up so that your hips are higher than your knees, this will take some pressure off of your lower back. Also, when you are seated, your feet should be flat on the ground, if you can not reach the ground when you raise your chair up, you can use a box to rest your feet on.
When it comes to your monitor, the top of you monitor should be directly in front of you, with the top of the monitor at eye level. This ensures that your neck is in a good position and you are not looking up or down. I have found that most people now use multiple monitors. If you find that you use both monitors evenly, set yourself in between them so that you always move your neck equally in both directions. If you find that you use one monitor more than the other, set yourself in front of the monitor that you use the most, and then use your chair to shift between monitors.
The last thing that I encourage patients to do at work is to take mini-breaks. Set an alarm on your phone or computer for every 45 minutes to an hour and use that as a reminder to stand up, do some light stretching, and check your posture. Far too often I hear patients say that they sit for four to five hours without getting up. The longer you sit, the more your muscles tighten and your posture gets worse. So get up and move, your body will thank you.
#2. How You Sleep
After you spend between 8-10 hours every day seated, you spend another 6-8 hours laying in bed. This means that we spend somewhere between 60% and 75% of our time sedentary. And that doesn’t even include time that you spend sitting at the dinner table or in front of the TV.
When it comes to sleeping positions, the one position you absolutely should not sleep in is on your stomach. This causes pressure on the lower back and neck, since you have your head turned to one side all night, which can lead to pain in either area. If you get only one thing out of this post, make sure it’s that you should not sleep on your stomach.
Sleeping on your side is a better option. When sleeping on your side, make sure that you pillow is the correct height. If your pillow is too high, or too low, your neck is at an angle that can lead to pain. Ideally your neck and shoulders should be kept at a 90 degree angle when sleeping on your side. To accomplish this, the height of your pillow should be as close to the distance between your ear and the tip of your shoulder as possible. If you have lower back pain, sleeping with a pillow between your knees can help relieve pressure on the lower back.
Sleeping on your back is the best position for your spine. However, sleeping with too many pillows behind your head can lead to issues with your neck. Usually a single pillow that keeps your head even with your spine is ideal. Sleeping with a pillow behind your knees can also help relieve lower back pain.
#3. Cell Phone Use
In the past few years, the amount of time spent on cell phones (and other mobile devices) has steadily grown. We can now search the internet, send messages to anyone in the world and watch TV shows and movies anywhere, at any time, from our phones. A study in 2017 showed that the average American adult spends over 4 hours per day on their phones. That’s over 60 days a year, or almost 2 months, spent on a cell phone!
What is the most common position for people to use their cell phone in? Seated, with their chin tucked towards their chest, looking down at the phone. What do you think this does to the neck?
If we were take an x-ray of a textbook normal neck, the curve of the cervical spine would measure 35 degrees. In my practice, I commonly see necks that measure 0 degrees or even have negative measurements. This is the result of long term poor posture, which spending hours every day on a phone contributes to. Over time, this decreased curvature puts stress on your spine, which leads to neck pain and headaches.
To help decrease your risk of neck pain from cell phone usage, first try to limit the amount of time that you spend on your phone. I would recommend trying to limit cell phone use to 10 minutes at time. As we talked about with office ergonomics, take breaks and perform neck stretches in between. Luckily, most smartphones now allow you to set time limits on the amount of time your spend on your phone, this is a great way to help limit the amount of time you spend on your phone.
When you are on your phone, try not to hold the phone down so that you are forced to look down. Instead, hold your phone up to eye level, so that you can look straight ahead to view your screen. This will also give you a mini arm workout, which may cause you to spend less time on your phone as your arms get tired.
As you can see, we spend the vast majority of our day sitting at a computer, sleeping, or using our cell phones. Remember, you do not have to have been involved in a trauma to have neck and back pain. In my experience, it is all the things that we do on a regular basis that usually lead to pain. So, sleep in a proper position, practice proper office ergonomics and limit your cell phone use to help decrease your risk for neck pain, lower back pain and headaches. And if you are already having any of these symptoms, be sure to see a chiropractor and start the road to recovery.