How to relieve neck pain when you work at a desk

Woman holding the back of her neck. Photo by Karolina Grabowska

If you work at a desk all or most of the day, the chances are that you have suffered from the dreaded neck pain at some point. They have even come up with a catchy term for it: ‘tech neck’!

It’s no wonder when you consider the weight of your head and the strain it puts on your neck. Just tilting your head forward at a measly 15ᵒ degree angle adds an extra 12kg (that’s a whopping 27lbs!) for your poor neck to bear!

So, I’ve got some tips to help you prevent and relieve that nagging neck pain while you’re busy working away at your desk.

Before we get started, a quick disclaimer: while this article is aimed at desk workers like yourself who experience those pesky aches and pains, it’s important to note that neck pain can have various causes. So, remember, this advice isn’t a substitute for medical guidance. If you’re suffering from pain, it’s always best to consult with your doctor or healthcare provider as a first step.

Start with posture

Look at the whole body, not just the part that hurts

Aches and pains in one area are rarely isolated, so it’s crucial to look at your whole body.

There are multiple areas of the body that can impact your neck, and so whilst you feel pain in that area, it is always important to look at your whole-body posture.

Your neck contains your cervical spine, the uppermost part of the spine, and has a natural C-shaped curve. This curve is called a secondary curve, and it works with your lumbar spine, around your lower back area. These two curves are sympathetic, meaning that they are two buddies who mirror each other’s moves!

When you round your neck forward, your lower back tends to follow suit, and vice versa.

So, notice how you are sitting during the day. Do you tend to rock your pelvis backward and slump into your chair? Or tip your pelvis forward and lean your whole body toward your computer screen?

Instead, aim to stack your head over your rib cage, and your ribs over your pelvis. When these 3 areas are nicely stacked and in harmony, it eases the strain on individual areas like the neck.

Create regular check-ins for your posture – and your neck – throughout your day

But when you concentrate, as you do when you’re working, it is hard to simultaneously pay attention to your body, right?

Try setting a timer on your phone to check in with your posture. When it goes off, pay attention to your rib cage, pelvis and head position and try to stack all 3 in line.

You can also use the opportunity to do a little movement like shoulder rolls to loosen up any tension that has accumulated after sitting on one position for a period of time.

You may also notice that you are slouching forward or rounding your shoulders whilst working at a screen, which can be an indicator that your neck is also coming forward.

Use the check-in to also relax your jaw and face muscles. Clenching your jaw can have a ripple effect on your neck. As you clench, the surrounding muscles can participate too –  if you’re interested, the technical word for this is ‘irradiation’! So, relaxing these areas consciously can help your neck to relax too.

Set up your environment to make good posture easy

When you’re trying to change any kind of ingrained behaviour, it’s essential to make it easy to do the desired behaviour! So, when you are trying to teach yourself better posture throughout your work day, make sure to optimise your desk set-up.

Think about your screen position and chair height.

Ideally, you want to position your computer screen in line with your eyes. If you use a laptop, raise it up to a higher level by using some books or even a yoga block! You may then also need to purchase a separate computer keyboard and mouse, so you aren’t reaching up to use the computer.

Next, check the height of your chair so your arms naturally rest on the desk without hiking your shoulders up, and consider using a footrest if needed.

If you’re looking at your phone, lift the screen up with your hands so that you are not rounding forward to look at it. You might look like a boomer on the tube, but trust me, you will save yourself a world of neck pain in the long run.

Movement to prevent neck pain

Strengthen the supporting muscles to your neck

If you want to prevent your shoulders from rounding forward, simply telling yourself to hold them back all day is going to tire you out quickly if you’re not used to it!

Change takes time, and you need to re-build the strength in your shoulders so that your shoulder blades can hold in place for a prolonged period of time.

If your shoulder blades typically protract – meaning they move forward & away from the spine – and the top of your arm bone (humeral head) dips forward, then you need to strengthen your shoulders to be able to hold in their new position.

Yoga is a fantastic way to build strength in your shoulders since many of our most common movements involve both weight-bearing through the hands, which in turn strengthens your shoulders. Yoga can also help train your shoulder blades to both hold in place (such as in plank). Plus, yoga can improve the mobility of the shoulder blades so they move more freely (and avoid getting stuck).

Do you have slopey shoulders?

Plus, have you heard of ‘slopey shoulder syndrome’? This was named by my teacher Lara, and I suffered from this for years without realising it.

My right shoulder tends to slide downward, which results in lengthened upper trapezius muscles and more critically, strains the levator scapula muslce.

The levator scapula muscle runs down the back of the neck and attaches to the top of the shoulder blade.

When the shoulder blade is not being held in place by the trapezius, the levator scapula takes over! It can get chronically tight from all the extra strain.

The fix? Simple – strengthen the serratus muscle.

The serratus muscle supports your shoulder blade from underneath to hold it in place.

Another trick I like is to place a small rolled-up towel under my armpit for extra support when it feels strained. Often, the towel trick is enough to relieve the pain and take the pressure off for a while.

Move more throughout your day

I am a BIG proponent of regularly moving throughout your day because there are so many benefits.

And neck health is no exception!

When you get up and move, you change the position of your neck and so you reduce the amount of time it is stagnant in the same position (usually, leaning toward your screen)

Plus, it increases your circulation, so you can expect any inflammation to be reduced by the oxygen brought by fresh blood flow.

Movement is also key to keep soft tissue like fascia supple and pliable. We want soft tissue to glide freely, and when it cannot do so smoothly, you may feel tightness and restriction.

Bonus tip: Hydration is also important for fascia, as it is made up of around 70% water, so don’t forget to keep drinking water too!

Upgrade your exercise routine to prevent neck pain

You didn’t think I would get through a whole blog post without talking about yoga, did you?!

Well, not just yoga, but whatever exercise you do in general is important.

Aerobic exercise is movement that gets your blood pumping around your system, which improves circulation and brings oxygen to areas of inflammation. So it’s important to incorporate exercise into your routine.

The style of yoga that I teach is ideal for increasing your heart flow as we tend to incorporate plyometric movements (like squat jumps), in addition to the strength and mobility focus you would expect to see in yoga.

Your form, or your alignment, is also important when you practice yoga or do any form of exercise. Your neck is an extension of your spine, and as I already covered, it mirrors your lower back – your lumbar spine.

So, it’s important to pay attention to what your neck is doing in movement so you can train your body to hold good posture as you move (it all comes back to posture!)

For instance, think about plank position, since plank is done often in yoga and other exercise programmes, it’s a fantastic example.

In plank, do you hold your head up or allow it to drop down?

If you the exercise called ‘mountain climbers’ where you alternate pulling your knees toward your chest in plank position, does your head drop to look at your knees?

If you are dropping the head down, you might notice your shoulders protract more too. Suddenly, you are reinforcing the protracted shoulder position you have spent your day in! Plus, you are not building strength in your neck and shoulders to hold the head in line.

Unplug to unwind – the impact of screens on neck pain

When it comes to wellness, it seems like whatever topic I talk about can be tied back to this: unplug to unwind.

The more time you spend at your desk reinforcing the same position, the worse your pain is going to get.

Plus, if you finish your work day and move from desk to couch, slumped in front of your TV screen, you’re not giving your body enough movement variety in your day.

Instead, prioritise activities that require you to be offline.

Anything that gets you outside is a bonus (read more about why I love daily walks and getting out into nature here), or doing any movement to break up the sedentary nature of spending a day sitting at a desk.

How about stretches for neck pain, do they help?

Neck stretches can be a good way to improve the movement in your neck if you feel tight or stuck, but here’s the deal: it’s only one component.

Addressing the 3 areas I’ve covered here – posture, movement and getting offline – will go a long way to preventing that tight and stuck feeling in your neck. It will also train your body to hold a more optimal posture for you that will help you feel more energised and free.

By addressing your neck in a wholistic way, through all the of the practices discussed here, you will pave the way for a healthier, happier neck and ultimately, more freedom so you can focus your energy on what matters to you in the world!

Whether that’s campaigning for workplace rights, equal pay or standing up as a leader in your community, don’t let pain hold you back.

Stand tall, move with intention, and prioritise your well-being. Your neck is a vital part of your body and by nurturing it, you’re investing in your overall vitality, joy, and inner power.

Let this be your reminder that with each conscious action you take, you’re sculpting a life of balance and vitality. Take care of yourself and your body, free yourself from pain and tension, so you can move to new heights of inner strength and freedom.

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