Neck pain

Is my neck pain causing my headaches?

A comprehensive guide to understanding the role of the neck in management of headaches.

With progression of technology, life is becoming increasingly based in front of a screen, whether it be laptop, mobile, monitor or tablet. Many of us now work in front of these throughout the day for many hours, only to go home, or perhaps already be at home, to then sit in front of a tv for a few more hours.

There are two things going on here. Firstly, we have a general reduction in our overall physicality in our day-to-day due to the office. This causes us to maintain and sustain potentially bad postures for long periods of time, whilst we make sure we’re keeping up on our work. Now the research is now showing that there’s no such thing as bad posture, just bad sustained posture. Temporarily sitting in a bad position is ok, but when we’re focused on a task the hours can tick by with little notice.

Secondly, many of us have hectic work/life balances. We struggle to find the time or energy to focus on ourselves, particularly if you have a family and are caring for young children. Busy keeping the household running, preparing meals, ensuring everyone gets to their extracurricular activities, leaving little time or energy for yourself, which is motivation enough to sit in front of the tv and relax.

Both of the above factors, the progression of technology and undoubtedly more personal factors depending on your own situation, contribute to the reduction in our own physicality. This then slowly deconditions us physically which has many negative side effects. However pertinent to this topic is we’re now spending a lot of our time looking down at a laptop screen, a mobile phone, a benchtop, all the while having muscles that are getting weaker and never getting taken through their full range of motion.

You’re not Alone

Neck pain is one of the leading causes of disability and with numbers increasing. The above reasons are an oversimplification of the problem as that does not consider events more traumatic in nature like car accidents or acute workplace or home injuries. It’s also only a small snapshot, as it’s only addressing neck pain of a more acute nature, less than 6 months and without a traumatic event. However, without treatment, if the symptoms aren’t settling, this could very well become a chronic condition, greater than 6 months. Particularly if the original injury is never addressed.

All that being said, neck pain with an associated headache is not a cause for concern as the vast majority of neck pain isn’t serious. Doing activities with a little bit of pain is generally ok, so long as the pain isn’t worsening with the activity. Although to be sure, or if you’re concerned, it’s best to get it checked out by a professional. Particularly if there are other symptoms, like pins and needles, numbness or weakness, or if the pain isn’t improving after a few days.

What can I do about it?

Firstly, try not to worry, stress and anxiety, although difficult to avoid, can lengthen recovery time. We all have episodes of pain on occasion and the vast majority of people recover relatively quickly.

Secondly, ensure you’re moving regularly, do this by taking regular breaks, getting up from your desk moving your neck and shoulders around, not just going for a walk, we want to get all those muscles moving! You can set reminders or alarms on your phone, or when you go to the bathroom, just make sure you put more effort in to looking after yourself physically.

Thirdly make sure your desk set up at home or at work is as ergonomic and comfortable as possible to ensure you’re maintaining a ‘good’ posture for as long as possible to reduce the fatigue and demand on those neck muscles.

These few measures should help keep any issues at bay and help prevent them becoming issues.

What if I’m already sore?

If you’re already sore, working within your pain is fine, but don’t be afraid of it particularly if it’s been there for a couple of days. Gently pushing into discomfort is ok, so long as it’s not getting worse. There are a couple of exercises that can be done other than simple stretches which can help as well.

Relieving Neck Pain

Chin Tucks

Back against the wall pull your head back to touch the wall whilst giving yourself a double chin, then relax and repeat. Perform this approx. ten times. This can be performed anywhere quite easily.

Physiotherapist demonstrating chin tucks step 1
Step 1

If you’re finding that you’re more sore or stiff on one side, you could even perform them with a rotation towards that direction, just ensure your head slides on the wall, not rolling.

Physiotherapist demonstrating chin tucks step 2
Step 2

Overhead Shrug

Another one you can perform easily to loosen the area is an overhead shrug, the movement comes from the shoulder, not the arm. Basically, using a wall to stabilise the arm, reach as high as possible, then relax just your shoulder, repeat ten times.  

Physiotherapist demonstrating overhead shrugs

Not all pain needs treatment and will often settle down after a week or so. But if you’re finding yourself experiencing pain for longer than a week, or pain that settles but consistently re-exacerbates, it’s a good idea to speak with a Physiotherapist to get down to the route cause of the problem. We generally don’t need to live with these pains.

References:

Nobari M, Arslan SA, Hadian MR, Ganji B. Effect of Corrective Exercises on Cervicogenic Headache in Office Workers With Forward Head Posture. jmr. 11(4):201-208

Straker L, Pollock C, Burgess-Limerick R. et al. The impact of computer display height and desk design on muscle activity during information technology work by young adults. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 2008;
18: 606-617

Khan U, Fasih M.Prevalence of work related neck pain among physiotherapists and its association with age and gender. Pak J Physiol 2017;
13: 39-42

Tanveer F, Shahid S. Prevalence of neck pain among Doctors of Physical Therapy students of University of Lahore due to bad posture. Rawal Medical Journal 2017; 42 (2) 172-175

Hussain M, Iqbal AA, Gillani SA. et al. Association of neck pain with the use of android phone and its daily usage among students of universities of lahore. International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research 2017;
8 (10) 485-494

BHSc. MPhty APAM

High-Performance Physiotherapist

Paul Kuchin is a physiotherapist who has a focus on upper limb injuries especially hands. He has a keen interest in touch footy, Muay Thai, and motorsports.

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