The month of May sees Worker’s Day celebrated – a day to honour the contribution of working class men and women to the economy even in these difficult times. This year, amidst the global pandemic, it has been required of many people to adapt or change their working roles and environments. I have noticed a rise in the number of people struggling with neck and shoulder discomfort in this lockdown period.

Many office workers now find themselves working at home, manual workers may now find themselves in more sedentary positions and some people may be doing more manual work in the form of house work, gardening  or other home activities.

There is no such thing as a perfect posture and we are all different in genetics and our environments (past and present), so there is no one ‘advice package’ fits all. But there are a few pointers to take note of that may help you understand your body or what you may be feeling.

Extremes for long periods

The general rule of thumb is to avoid extreme positions for any length of time. Ever woken up from a nap on the couch or car with a ‘crick’ in your neck……the unusual load (time and position) on your neck activates receptors in your joints and muscles to alert your brain that there is a strain and your brain’s output is to tighten the muscles in the area. Your level of pain is very unique to you, and is influenced by a plethora of factors both physical and emotional.

So what might these positions look like:

Neck posture at laptop

In the above picture, the lady’s neck is quite far forward in relation to the rest of her body. Not a problem if she is quickly analysing something she sees. However, if she had to maintain this position for any length of time (* the time period will vary from person to person), so from ‘her normal’ tolerable time, she may experience some discomfort.

Her centre of gravity has shifted forward from the centre of her body. The muscles in the back of her neck now have to work harder to keep her head upright. If she stayed this way beyond her time limits, these muscles would have to work very hard indeed. The little joints in her neck would be experiencing pressure in a sustained position, the pressure receptors, which once their threshold is reached, would activate her nervous system to send a message to her brain to alert the brain to the situation at hand, or rather in neck.

Combined positions and technology

Let’s face it, we are spending much longer periods glued to our smartphones than we are accustomed to. Add to this a strange position we have adopted to read our phone while sitting on a couch or lying on your side in bed and the recipe for disaster is slowly starting to brew. Take a look at the next picture.

Neck posture girl on phone

This woman’s neck is rotated and flexed. If she had to read an article on the current state of affairs (as she may well be doing, just look at the expression), she probably wouldn’t even notice her neck. If however, she had to read a whole 10 page article on measures to combat COVID 19, she may have a very stiff neck this evening or tomorrow morning. If this same woman is accustomed to reading 10 page articles on her phone, she may feel absolutely fine.  

It is all relative to ‘your normal’ so if you are suddenly doing something in a different way for different time periods (as we are currently exposed to), it could explain discomfort or pain you may be experiencing. Before I move on to my next description – could you imagine the difference in her pain levels (assuming she has any) if the message on her phone was one that she had won the lotto versus one that a family member had fallen ill…………be mindful of how your emotions can affect your physical being, especially at a time like this.

Time changes structure

Another factor to bear in mind is that our bodies adapt to the positions we adopt commonly and regularly. Consider the picture below.

Neck posture for a typical school boy

If this boy sits in this position every day, for his school day, every day of the week for his formative years, his body will adapt to this position. He most likely will not experience any discomfort. However, let’s say he decides to take up tennis after some years of adopting this position.

Neck posture tennis

Could you see how it would be difficult for him to get into the positions he would need to for this sport? He may experience discomfort or he may tire very quickly, either physically because his sitting position does not require much skeletal muscle activation to maintain; and/or emotionally because he may not feel he is very good at tennis. It would take his body time to adapt to the position he now expects it to adopt. This happens with adults too.

The good news is that you can adapt to different positions/postures if you do them gradually and regularly over time. Muscles, ligaments and bones will build stronger under this gradual and safe load given enough time.

Upright is helpful, movement is better

Generally speaking an upright, comfortable, arms near the sides, head on neck/chin slightly tucked in position is preferable to a slouched, arms extended, chin poking out position.  The best postures for your neck (and your entire body at that) are ones that meet your needs, do not give you undue pain or discomfort and are varied. Try to avoid any one position for any length of time, especially an extreme or combined position. Adopt a philosophy of movement being your friend.

If you feel you need further advice specific to you, please contact your physiotherapist, so that an advice package can be tailored to your specific needs.