4 Areas of Focus That Will Save Your Neck While Working

Coronavirus neck pain didn’t exist before 2020, but now it seems it’s unavoidable. It’s not, though; here’s how to avoid it and save your neck while working from home.

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COVID-19 has not been kind to anyone. From healthcare workers to 9-to-5ers, the pandemic has taken its toll on the population, psychologically and emotionally. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, the physical ramifications of being forced into our homes away from others have also snowballed (Exhibit A: the COVID waistline).

Man with neck pain from working from home or the officeFocus on these four areas to save your neck--and the rest of you--from office work, whether you're logging in from a desk at the office or your kitchen table at home.

However, snacks and novel viruses are not the only enemies. As working from home continues to be the new normal for many, lurking in your kitchen or home office are also several sources for spinal issues that are just waiting to cause you new neck pain or irritate an already-existing condition such as:

“Poor posture can make these conditions worse,” says Jaspal Ricky Singh, MD, a board-certified physiatrist specializing in sports medicine and pain management. Dr. Singh is Vice Chair and Associate Professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Weill Cornell Medicine and Director of Interventional Spine at Och Spine - New York Presbyterian in New York City.

You can just be tapping away at your laptop’s keyboard until—BAM—you find yourself popping anti-inflammatories like all those extra cookies you didn’t need. That’s because when your neck is bent forward to 45 degrees, your head exerts nearly 50 pounds of force on your neck (that exertion is known as cervical loa2).  

Thankfully, there’s hope. By keeping an eye out and making the right adjustments, your neck pain should disappear faster than toilet paper did from shelves when the pandemic hit.

The Three Big Work from Home Dangers for Your Neck 

Here are some things to look out for when working from home that can make you a prime target for neck pain, coronavirus or no.

 Repetition

They say that repetition is the key to memorizing something and while that may be true when you’re learning your multiplication tables, it’s not good for your body to repeat the same action over and over for extended periods. This is especially true for your cervical spine as it tries desperately to maintain alignment with your 10- to 12-pound head.

Computer neck pain is a common complaint of office workers. When you work on a computer, you may find yourself leaning towards the monitor without realizing it. You could also be doing it using a phone or tablet (also known as text neck). Unfortunately, consistently leaning forward changes the natural curvature of your neck and places an uneven strain on muscles, ligaments, and joints in the cervical spine. These actions can result in a repetitive injury to the neck.

Poor Posture

Many people can relate to being scolded for their posture by at least one adult in their lives and it is well-warranted. Sitting and working in awkward positions for long periods can cause muscle tension, reduce blood flow and even pinch nerves. Some common posture mistakes that can cause neck pain include:

  • Reaching for the keyboard and mouse. Reaching forward can cause muscle tension between the shoulder blades and the neck, especially when the posture is sustained over time.
  • Bending forward at the waist while sitting. This happens when feet are not supported and puts pressure on the lumbar discs.
  • Shoulders shrugged upward while sitting and working at a desk/table. This happens when the keyboard and mouse are sitting too tall for the user. 

Contact Stress

Contact stress is pressure on the body by a hard edge/surface that is continuous, repeated, or even occasional. This can reduce blood flow, nerve function, and inhibit tendon/muscle movement leading to swelling, tingling, or discomfort. It commonly affects the soft tissues of the:

  • Hands
  • Forearms
  • Thighs
  • Shins
  • Feet

Though these body parts are not directly connected to the neck, you must remember that the body is a series of chain reactions; an issue in one area can ultimately result in issues with another, like setting off a line of stacked dominoes. Therefore, something occurring with the misplacement of your forearm could ultimately result in pain in your neck.

Contract stress is usually subtle and not something that would cause an immediate reaction (like stubbing your toe, for example). Examples of contact stress can include:

  • Your legs pressing against the edge of the chair as you sit
  • Your wrists pressed against the edge of the desk while you type
  • Repetitive finger motion with your mouse where your wrist is bent for long periods

Four Areas of Focus for Combatting Neck Pain While Working

With so many things throwing you—and your neck—out of whack, it’s important to make the proper adjustments to you and your workspace to lighten the load on your body as much as possible when you’re stuck at your desk or other workspaces (We’re looking at you, kitchen table user). Therefore, you need to focus on the four areas of ergonomic adjustments.

Body to Chair

The first point of focus is body to chair. Improper positioning at your workstation seating can have a serious impact on your back, shoulders, hips, and upper legs. To ensure your body is in the correct position while you slave away in meetings, consider the following:

  • Your seat height should be high enough that you have 90-degree-plus bends in your hips and knees
  • You shouldn’t sit too low or there will be too much pressure on the [previously mentioned] body parts
  • Sit with a pillow behind your back to reduce low back stress

Feet to Floor

Next is your feet. Your feet should rest flat on the floor, your knees parallel with the chair surface, and your legs should be a few inches away from the edge of the chair. “If the chair is too high and you can’t adjust your seat, then you can put a box or pillows beneath your feet [to bring the ground up to you]”, says Dr. Singh.

Mouse to Keyboard

Third is what’s happening on your work surface. Your elbows should sit 90 degrees and wrists should lay as flat as possible against the table surface slightly extending to the keyboard. Additionally, the mouse should be next to the keyboard, and not at a different height.

Monitor Height

Last is the height of your monitor. “Your eyes should be 2/3 the way up the monitor; if it is too high or too low it will add stress to your neck and cause it to droop”, Dr. Singh says. It may also be helpful to increase the font size so you’re not tempted to lean forward to read.

Regardless of how you position yourself, you need to remember that even sitting in the perfect position for too long isn’t good for your neck or any other body part. You need to get up and move throughout the day to guarantee that you’ll keep your muscles/tendons/ligaments nimble and your circulation going strong.

In the end, the pandemic may be a pain in other parts of the body, but it doesn’t have to be a pain in your neck. By staying vigilant about what to avoid and how to position yourself, you can keep neck pain—and the doctor—at bay.

Updated on: 03/08/21
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Jaspal Ricky Singh, MD
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