Who else has sharp pain in the neck and upper back?
4 actions I’ve been taking to prevent it
I have some special conditions in the curvature of my neck, the structure of my spine, among other things. With untrained eyes, some people cannot perceive it.
Over the years, I’ve done GPR (global posture reeducation), taken medication, and even implanted four screws in the lumbar.
Even so, I usually have a sharp pain in the neck and upper back between the shoulder blades and, sometimes, a strong limitation in the neck’s movement that happens for little reason.
I found that some contexts boost the probability of it happening.
For example, it’s easy to go into chronic pain for days when doing strength training in the morning with a lot of tension in the muscles and then spending hours sitting in front of the computer.
I found critical factors to help me avoid them. I still have pain sometimes, but now it seems I can influence myself to avoid the probability, frequency and intensity of them.
1. Sit more actively and move frequently
I’m trying to sit more actively and get up from the computer every 20 minutes to stretch, especially the cervical and between the shoulder blades. For that, I’m using the Screen Break plugin for Firefox to remind myself to pause.
It appears to be a critical factor, regardless of training days.
After several experiments over the years and some research on the subject, I believe it is not so important to have an expensive chair with a fancy backrest.
I don’t even believe it’s important to have a backrest to sit on. Maybe the opposite.
The backrest can favor a passive position of the torso, without keeping the muscles active.
According to Daniel E. Lieberman , “studies show that backrests demand less sustained muscular effort. It is reasonable to conclude that those of us who regularly sit in chairs with backrests have weak back muscles that lack endurance, making it uncomfortable to sit for long on the ground or on stools. The result is a vicious cycle of chair dependency”.
And, he continues saying “to find ways to sit more actively without being inert for too long, squirm shamelessly, and don’t let sitting get in the way of also exercising or otherwise being physically active.”
Given that, and some personal experimentation, the important thing for me seems to be keeping the body active and moving more often while working at the computer.
It is so simple and so overlooked these days by people like me who have spent hours in front of the computer.
Small breaks to move that we forget or avoid so as not to ‘distract’ us. And so we forget our health.
Curiously, even having read 80% of the book of Daniel in the past, in everyday life I had difficulty making the “move frequently” part practical when I was entertained at the computer.
I notice that when I’m in a backless chair, it makes it easier for me to remember.
2. Perform strength training
I believe it’s safe and enough to keep my muscles strong and healthy without spending hours on unnecessary and risky exercises.
My training includes back and neck exercises, to help with my conditions.
3. Pay attention to form
At the same time, I need to pay a lot of attention to form.
The two points below have seemed important in relieving the tension that favors a limitation in my neck’s movement right after the exercises.
- Paying attention to shoulder blades be protracted at the top: At the top of the push-up, I am paying attention to the shoulder blades being protracted (rounded) by pushing the chest as far from the floor as possible.
- Paying attention to keeping my head aligned: I’m paying close attention to keeping my head aligned so I don’t have my chin forward when descending.
4. Avoid exercises that cause a lot of tension for many seconds in a row in muscles close to the neck
I’m continuously adapting my training according to my situation.
Avoid exercising only the hard part range of motion
I’ve found that if I exercise at a level of progression where the tension is higher in some exercises that involve muscle regions close to the neck, it causes me more pain.
So I stopped with push-ups performed only at the hard partial range of motion, and temporarily I also stopped with incline (feet-elevated) push-ups.
Avoid holding or squeezing at the position of maximum tension
I stopped with the hold time of 8 seconds at the bottom of the pushup.
It was part of my level of progression for making it more difficult and demanding on the muscles when performing a total 90-second time under load.
But it caused a lot of tension in the region close to the neck.
Conclusion — TL; DR
Summarizing the points that are working for my conditions:
- Sit more actively and move frequently.
- Perform strength training.
- Pay attention to form.
- Avoid exercises that cause a lot of tension for many seconds in a row in muscles close to the neck.
And, besides that list, I continue to take walks, because it helps both body and mental health.
My focus while doing strength training is health to longevity, not trying to get big.
I’ll continue to experiment and adapt the exercises to discover better ways to get good results avoiding neck pain.
 Daniel E. Lieberman is the Edwin M. Lerner Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of:
- The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease.
- EXERCISED: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding