Neck pain

Neck Pain, The Silent Epidemic

Categories Lifestyle

Neck pain

John Von Arnim reports on the modern workplace’s frustrating and often neglected epidemic.

What’s the number one chronic pain problem suffered by concert pianists, fast jet crew in the RAAF and desk jockeys hunched over computers and laptops? A pain in the neck, literally. Collision-type sports like rugby have substantial neck injuries and Tiger Woods was forced to withdraw from a major golf tournament because of neck pain.

“A pain in the neck is a common adage for good reason” says Dr Gerard Clum “because it’s an annoying, aggravating and disabling problem affecting up to 70 per cent of the population annually”.

He should know. Dr Clum was one of the authors of a decade-long international study called Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders.

“While neck pain does not carry the life-or-death reality of heart attack or cancer, it often undermines a person’s quality of life over decades,” he says.

Over the past 20 years, neck pain has moved into the number three position in the top 10 health problems affecting Australian men says the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease report. The reason for the upsurge can be traced to modern technology reveals research by the University of Sydney. The unprecedented levels of neck, back, shoulder and arm pain are the unintended consequences of the paperless office says lead author, Karin Griffiths.

“Since I started assessing offices for computer work station safety in the early 1980s, there has been a massive increase in the amount of computer work performed by office workers.”

Now 85 per cent of people who spend more than eight hours a day working with a computer experience neck pain.

The coining of new terms such as “text neck” has been caused by the forward-head posture adopted by most people using computers and mobiles, as it forces the neck to carry increased weight.

Back and neck pain also affects the sex lives of one in five Australians, revealed the Panadol Back + Neck Report in 2008. The consequences extend beyond the bedroom- over 40 per cent of those surveyed said they felt irritable and distracted because of the discomfort and suffered from interrupted sleep.

The medical term for the neck is the cervical spine and it’s an extremely vulnerable mechanism made up of seven bony vertebrae slotted into intervertebral discs. Even the effort of holding up the average man’s head (4.5 to 5 kilos) makes the neck prone to injury, let alone being subjected to car collisions, sports injuries or the G-force pull experienced by airforce pilots.

There are four grades of neck pain. Most people suffer from Grades I and II, which apart from discomfort, doesn’t greatly affect their daily work lives and activities. A small minority experience Grades III and IV pain, which is accompanied by pain and signs of nerve injury.

Most neck pain resoilves within one to four weeks but see a doctor if pain is persistent and recurring.

Dr Jerome Schofferman, author of What To Do For a Pain in the Neck, says even turning your head frequently to talk to other people at business meetings and dinner parties can cause temporary neck pain. But the most common culprits these days are computer work, too much texting, poor posture, incorrect sleeping positions, carrying heavy loads and even falling asleep in front of the TV in an awkward angle. Here are Dr Schofferman’s dos and dont’s:

  • Always sit upright with your lower back pressed against the back of the chair. Keep your feet on the floor and don’t cross your legs.
  • Avoid constant neck twisting by placing the computer and keyboard directly in front of you. Try not to lift your shoulders when you type. Be aware that laptops cause you to hunch even further forward than with a desktop computer.
  • Try to take a stretch break every 30-45 minutes. Flex your head backwards, forwards and to the right and left, holding each flexion for 20 seconds.
  • Go cold and hot. To relieve the inflammation of neck pain, use a cold pack ( frozen peas wrapped in a towel will do). Follow with a heat pad and a gentle massage.
  • Take up yoga and pilates – both exercises are great for stretching and strengthening the neck.
  • Sleep on your side or back. Sleeping on the stomach twists the neck to the end range of its traction and can cause muscle strain. Buy a specialised pillow (from department stores) designed to support the natural curve of the neck.
  • Don’t position a large screen TV too high on the wall. Yet another modern hazard that twists the neck into an unnatural position