Neck pain is a nagging problem that’s increasing in frequency in men and women of all ages, even teenagers. The reason? Too many people spend the day with their neck and shoulders hunched over a keyboard or a desk. Then, when work is over, the soon-to-be neck pain sufferer grabs a smartphone and starts texting or working on an iPad. In other words, most people spend most their waking hours with their head bent down and their shoulders slumped over in an unnatural position. Unfortunately, this problem will probably not go away any time soon as we become even more dependent on technology.
Why is texting such a problem? The human head weighs around 11 pounds. But, when you bend your head forward by 60 degrees to text or type on a keyboard, the force it creates rises to as high as 60 pounds. Your upper spine and the muscles in your neck and upper back have to deal with this extra pressure and they are ill-equipped to do so, especially if the muscles are weak. Over time, the added force takes its toll on the neck and shoulders, which weren’t designed to withstand that kind of pressure day in and day out. In some cases, chronic stress on the neck can lead to a herniated disc or chronic pain due to added strain on the ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
Interestingly, women are at higher risk of developing shoulder and neck pain relative to men. It’s not clear whether this is due to differences in the tasks men and women do or to some other factor such as hormones. Nevertheless, if you’re a woman, it’s even more important that you take precautions to protect your neck from chronic, low-grade injury and stress.
The best prescription for avoiding neck pain is to spend less time looking down at a device and more time stretching and walking around with your head upright. Give your neck more breaks! But, what about strength training? Can strength training prevent or reduce the symptoms of chronic neck pain?
Strength Training and Neck Pain
Is strength training good for neck pain prevention? A study carried out at the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark looked at this issue. Participants in the study were women who did repetitive work that placed a strain on their neck and upper back. All of the participants had trapezius myalgia, a medical term for strained and painful trapezius muscles. As you know, the trapezius muscles are two large diamond-shaped muscles in your upper back. These muscles rotate and help stabilize your scapula on each side, also known as your shoulder blades.
The majority of people who have neck and shoulder pain have myalgia of the muscles in the neck and shoulders, most commonly the trapezius. Myalgia is usually due to overuse or overstretching of the muscles and is associated with reduced blood flow to the affected muscles, increased use of anaerobic metabolism, and the build-up of waste products around the affected muscles. All of this adds up to ongoing pain and stiffness that can become chronic and, in some cases, debilitating.
Strength Training and Neck Pain: What the Study Showed
Can strength training help trapezius myalgia? In the study, the subjects were divided into three groups. One group did strength training to strengthen their neck and shoulder muscles. The second group did a more generalized workout where they rode an exercise bicycle while a third group got counseling on how to take care of their neck but did not work out. The groups that exercised completed a 20-minute workout three times weekly for 10 weeks.
The results? The women who strength trained reported a 75% reduction in neck pain over the course of the 10-week study. In contrast, the group that rode the exercise bicycle experienced a minimal reduction in neck pain or stiffness. The last group, the women who received counseling only, reported no improvement in their symptoms.
What type of exercises did the women who strength trained do? They did exercises that specifically targeted the shoulder and neck muscles. The exercises included upright rows, shoulder shrugs, one-arm rows, and reverse flies. You might already do these exercises yourself. If not, it’s a good time to start!
Each of these exercises targets the muscles in the upper back, neck, and shoulders and may be beneficial for sore, achy necks and shoulders. When you do these movements, choose a weight that allows you to complete 8 to 12 reps before you experience muscle fatigue. Lateral raises, in particular, have science behind them. A study found that doing them for only two minutes daily using resistance bands led to improvement in neck pain after only 10 weeks.
Other Ways to Improve Chronic Neck Pain
If you do have to sit in front of a computer most of the day, take a few precautions. Sit with your feet flat on the floor – no leg crossing. Keep your shoulders back and your neck as erect as possible. Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level and you’re not having to look down to work. Remember, the force on your spine increases as you bend your neck down. Make sure you’re taking frequent breaks to walk around and stretch. Set an alarm as a reminder to get up and move around.
If you have to sit at your desk for a long period of time, do this simple exercise throughout the day. Move your chin toward your chest and stretch your neck to one side, then the other, and then down toward your chest in a circular motion. But, more importantly, try to sit less. Most of us do too much of that anyway!
The Bottom Line
Strength training helps prevent neck pain by strengthening the muscles that support your neck, and exercises that target the upper trapezius may help relieve neck pain that you already have. But, always check with your doctor if you have persistent or severe neck pain or if you have other symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or hands.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Strength training relieves chronic neck pain”
The Atlantic. “What Texting Does to the Spine”
BioMed Research International. Volume 2013, Article ID 262386, 11 pages.
Physiopedia. “Trapezius Myalgia”
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