As physical therapists, one of the most common complaints we hear is of neck pain.

As physical therapists, one of the most common complaints we hear is of neck pain.


It can affect people of any age and activity level and tends to be more persistent than injuries to the arms or legs. It is estimated that over 9 million people in the United States have experienced neck pain in the past three months.


There can be several physiological causes of neck pain including but not limited to bulging or herniated discs, arthritis and muscles spasms. Additional health issues such as obesity, low-back pain, diabetes and smoking may also be present in individuals who experience neck pain. These are not necessarily causes of neck problems but they are characteristics that are typically found in people with neck pain.


Although it is often impossible to target the exact cause of neck pain, there are often lifestyle changes that can be made that can positively influence this type of discomfort. Some of these changes relate to what was mentioned previously. Having a body weight that is closer to what is medically ideal and quitting smoking may relate to less pain. If these changes don't result in less pain there are other health benefits that make them worthwhile endeavors.


Many people have jobs and lifestyles that cause them to stay in a forward-bent posture for extended periods of time. Children and teens spend their days in school bent over computers and desks and have less time for alternative activities such as recess and gym which would get them out of that posture. With smart phones and laptops becoming more popular we see people of all ages spending less time in proper upright postures.


As adults, our lifestyles are not much different. We drive to work while reaching forward for the steering wheel, spend eight hours on the computer or in meetings and finish the day by driving home to eat dinner and sit in front of the television. Even in more physically demanding jobs such as construction we see people spending most of their days in forward-bent positions.


The problem with posture is probably less related to what we specifically do all day, and more related to the fact that we do the same thing all day long. If you watch small children they never do the same thing for more than a few minutes at a time. Most children will do 10 different activities in 10 minutes and never give their bodies a chance to get stuck in any single position.


Due to work and lifestyle restrictions, adults don't have the freedom to change positions and activities whenever they want, but there are some simple changes that you can make that may substantially reduce or prevent neck pain.


First you should change your position during the day as often as you can. If you are sitting, try to stand periodically. If you are on your feet all day, try to sit occasionally. If you have a desk job, try to raise or lower your chair a few inches during the course of a day. This will force you to change the way you hold yourself upright. When you are in a car, try to make as many adjustments to your seating position as possible. Even the most basic car will allow you to make at least two or three adjustments to the seat.


As we get older, we need to spend more time working on our flexibility. Stretching your chest muscles in a corner or doorway, and stretching your back on a foam roller are a couple of techniques that most people can use to regain some lost flexibility. The muscles in our back also need to be strengthened to help us maintain good posture and to reduce stress to our spine when our positions cannot be ideal.


If you have had neck pain that has lasted for more than about a week you should contact your doctor. Generally, the longer that someone has had pain the longer it takes to treat it. A physical therapist can be a great resource for dealing with neck discomfort. Our ability to approach the unique contributing factors to each individual's neck pain means that we can often help substantially reduce or in most cases eliminate neck pain and allow a return to an active and painfree lifestyle.


Rich Kosses has a doctorate in physical therapy from the MGH Institute of Health Professions and is an advanced physical therapist at the Spaulding Framingham (Mass.) Outpatient Center. He has a special interest in treating sports and orthopedic injuries.