Neck Pain While Sitting at Your Desk? 3 Possible Sources
In early 2019, San Francisco State University had 87 students go through a painful study exploring different neck and head positions.
Students had to sit with proper neck alignment and turn their head as far as possible. Then they were told to bring their head forward and turn their head again
Not surprisingly, 92% of the students could not turn their heads nearly as far from the forward head posture.
Researchers then brought in 125 students and changed things up. This time researchers had them hold the forward head posture and scrunch their neck for 30 seconds. After just 30 seconds, a whopping 98% of students felt pain in their eyes, neck or head.
All from just 30 seconds of exposure! Unfortunately, millions of people are exposed to forward head position on a regular basis, especially because of long hours sitting at the computer.
Here Are 3 Reasons You May Have a Stiff Neck While Sitting
Here's what happens to your neck when your head starts to drift forward:
The Head Gets Heavier
Believe it or not, as your head juts forward while reading a book… watching a video… or pounding away at an email - it begins to weigh more.
According to San Francisco State University Professor Erik Peper:
“When your posture is tall and erect, the muscles of your back can easily support the weight of your head and neck – as much as 12 pounds. But when your head juts forward at a 45 degree angle, your neck acts like a fulcrum, like a long lever lifting a heavy object. Now the muscle weight of your head and neck is equivalent of about 45 pounds. It is not surprising people get stiff necks and shoulder and back pain.”
In other words, the weight of your head almost quadruples! It goes from the weight of an average cat, to the weight of a large bag of dog food. And when this happens there’s a…
Shutting Down of Intrinsic Neck Muscles
Attached to your neck are two categories of muscles: intrinsic neck muscles and extrinsic neck muscles.
Think of the neck (cervical spine) like the mast of a ship. The wires holding up the mast are the intrinsic neck muscles.
These muscles are smaller stabilizing muscles that help keep your head in an upright posture. On the other hand, extrinsic neck muscles are more like the sails. They are larger, stronger muscles that help generate force with movement.
Whenever you rotate your head… bow your head down… tip your head back… or shrug your shoulders - your extrinsic neck muscles make it happen. These muscles are designed for movement, they are not meant to stabilize like the intrinsic neck muscles.
However, when your head keeps drifting forward, certain intrinsic neck muscles (called intrinsic cervical flexors) located on the front of your neck, start to get stretched out. And the more stretched they get, the weaker they get. And research shows dysfunction here can lead to problems at the neck.
In fact, multiple studies in Clinical Neurophysiology, Manual Therapy, and Journal of Manual Manipulative Therapy found impaired intrinsic cervical flexors in people with chronic cervical pain and cervicogenic headaches (headaches caused by pain felt in the head but developed in the neck).
So when these intrinsic neck muscles shut down, something has to pick up the slack which causes…
Stiffening of The Larger Extrinsic Neck Muscles
When your intrinsic neck muscles start weakening, your body has to stabilize your head somehow, so larger extrinsic neck and shoulder muscles get recruited. Once again these extrinsic muscles are meant for motion, not stability. But they’ll take over if they have to.
And one of these extrinsic muscles is known as the upper trapezius.
When you shrug your shoulders, one of the muscles you use is the upper trapezius. This large muscle runs across the top of your shoulders. And if you’ve ever had an upper back massage, you know how tight and tender this area can be. There are a few reasons for this and one seems to be its tendency to try to stabilize the neck.
A study published in Biofeedback found that muscle activity in the trapezius increased when students jutted their heads forward. As the head moves forward, this muscle turns on to help stabilize the head. Turns out, this activation of the trapezius may be even more amplified in those with existing neck pain.
For instance, in a 2009 study published in Manual Therapy, female office workers were divided into two groups: those with chronic neck pain and those with no neck pain. Each group was hooked up to an EMG (electromyography) to determine the activation of certain neck muscles. They were then told to sit with their hands in their lap and then place their hands on a keyboard.
When the office workers simply placed their hands on the keyboard it significantly increased the muscle activation in the upper trapezius – but only for those with chronic pain! The pain-free group had no difference in muscle activation between the two postures.
Because the painful group was much more dependent on the upper trapezius. And some research suggests this dependency may eventually lead to an inability to relax it (and other extrinsic neck muscles).
According to a 2008 study published in the journal Spine, researchers had office workers go through a series of range of motion and coordination tasks. They found that workers with neck pain had an inability to relax the upper trapezius and other neck muscles (such as cervical extensors and anterior scalene) even after the tests were completed!
The problem is if the upper trapezius (and other extrinsic neck muscles) cannot relax, it begins to get tight and stiff, which can start to reinforce the forward head posture. In fact, here is a test for you to try (especially if you struggle with forward head posture):
Try This Seated Test:
Sit as tall as possible with your neck in correct alignment (notice the level of difficulty)
Sit in a chair with high armrests or prop your arms up with pillows.
Now sit upright with your neck in correct alignment (notice the level of difficulty).
Notice the difference?
For most people, this is much easier. Why? Because there is less tension trying to pull your head forward. That’s because when you elevate the arms you are taking the passive stretch out of the upper traps (and levator scapulae) which have been trying to pull you forward. Think of it like taking the slack out of a rope.
According to Mary Kate McDonnel, physical therapist and professor of physical therapy at Washington University School of Medicine:
“Supporting the upper extremities diminishes the downward pull of the limbs that impose compressive forces on the cervical spine structures, as well as minimizing the tension from the cervicoscapular muscles that can alter the pattern of cervical motion.”
Now this doesn’t mean you necessarily should sit like this day to day (however an argument can be made about having proper armrest height) but it does show you how certain muscles are fighting to keep you into certain postures.
So what can you do about this chain reaction of the neck drifting forward… the intrinsic neck muscles shutting down… and the extrinsic neck muscles tightening?
How to Fight a Stiff Neck and Forward Head Posture While Sitting At The Computer
You can attack this problem from many angles including strengthening the intrinsic neck muscles… stretching of certain extrinsic neck muscles… addressing the thoracic spine… or improving postural awareness. And depending on the severity of forward head posture, sometimes it’s best to team up with a physical therapist or chiropractor to figure this out.
But here’s a quick environmental tip to reduce the strain:
Raise Your Sights
A study from Harvard School of Public Health found that when subjects are holding a tablet computer too low it caused the vertebrae in the neck to move excessively forward. When this happens it creates strain in the spinal discs, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and nerves in the neck. But when you sit the computer tablet on a table or brought it to a higher angle, neck strain decreased.
According to Dr. Jack Dennerlein, the lead researcher of the study, “The farther down it is, the more you have to bend your neck to get down to it.”
In essence, if your eyes have to look down, your head is likely to follow and drift forward. So one way to counteract this tendency is to raise your sights. Meaning: position the top of the monitor just below your eye level.
Simply adjusting the height of your computer will make it easier to keep your head from jutting forward.