One of the most common reasons we see patients in our clinic is for neck and upper back pain. More often than not, these patients note that their symptoms are not the result of a specific injury, but rather have just gotten worse over time.
The main culprit? Sitting at work. Between slouched posture and the amount of time spent in a seated position (and often the combination of the two), many of our patients are set up to fail. Does that mean that if you sit at a desk all day that you’re destined to have pain? Not quite! Here are a few tips to reduce strain and prevent pain associated with sitting at work throughout the day.
#1: Stretch and Stretch Often
One of the first exercises we give most patients with neck pain is a simple Upper Trapezius Stretch. It helps reduce strain in several muscles in your neck and upper back (not just the upper traps), and is one of the most effective exercises patients can do on their own to help reduce neck pain and tightness.
To perform the stretch, sit up straight and tilt your head to one side (if you are having pain, tilt your head away from the painful/tight side). You can use the hand on that side of your body to help pull your head further to the side, increasing the amount of stretch on the opposite side of your neck. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
Another common exercise is a Chin Tuck.
Sit up straight, and focus your eyes forward while drawing your chin straight backward. You should be able to maintain your gaze on a specific point ahead of you while performing the exercise.
#2: Strengthen Your Shoulders
No, we’re not talking about bench press or biceps curls here. Sitting in a slouched position with your shoulders rounded forward puts many of the muscles attached to your shoulder blade on stretch. By sitting in that position for long periods of time, that stretched position causes these muscles to weaken. Strengthening your shoulder and scapular muscles will help to keep you in an upright position, as well as ward off any imbalances between your upper traps and the muscles in between your shoulder blades.
A quick note: while the exercises shown below utilize elastic bands (therabands), these are not required. Even doing the exercise without the band can help strengthen your shoulder and scapular muscles.
Exercise 1: Rows
Begin by keeping your shoulders relaxed. Pull your elbows backward and try to squeeze your shoulder blades together without letting them elevate. Hold for a second, and return to your resting position. After every few repetitions, take a deep breath to keep your shoulders relaxed. It may help to perform this exercise in front of a mirror at first to ensure your shoulders are not hiking up as you go.
Exercise 2: No Moneys
Stand with your elbows bent and your palms facing upward. Keeping your elbows tucked in by your side, rotate your hands outward. Finish the exercise by gently squeezing your shoulder blades together, and hold for a second, then return to your resting position.
#3: Address Your Work Station
There are a number of adjustments, both big and small, that one can do to help improve their posture and reduce strain throughout the work today. On the easier side of the spectrum, see if it is possible to raise your computer monitor to eye level. By raising the height of your monitor, it helps eliminate the amount of time you are looking down, easing stress on your neck and upper traps. It is also a good idea to lower your mouse and keyboard so that your shoulders can remain relaxed while working. Make sure to also keep your feet flat on the floor to help reduce strain on your lower back.
Work on a laptop? That makes for a tougher adjustment. Make sure to keep your arms and shoulders relaxed while working, and try to keep your head level while only focusing your eyes downward to look at your computer screen.
If you want to make bigger changes, ask your employer about an adjustable desk. Many companies are investing in adjustable, or “standing” desks so that their employees can change position throughout the day while remaining productive at work. These workstations aren’t for everyone, but can help you change your position and reset your posture more frequently during the day.
#4: Get Up and Move!
We find that many of our patients are able to achieve proper upright posture when asked. Many of them even note that they are diligent about finding this position when they first sit down. However, that only lasts for so long. We all tend to slouch forward when seated for long periods of time, whether we are focused on a specific project or taking a break from the grind of the work day.
No one maintains proper sitting posture 100% of the time, and it’s not good for anyone to sit for hours on end. One easy way to help combat slouched posture and stiffness from sitting for long periods is to get up and move around. It doesn’t need to be a long break — even standing up and stretching for 30 seconds or so can make a big difference in a person’s average posture throughout the day.
One strategy we often instruct our patients on is to set a timer. Everyone’s smartphone has one these days, so it’s easy to set a timer for 30 minutes or so and get up every time that goes off. Whether it’s to go to the restroom, get a drink, or do some of the exercises above, standing up and resetting your posture frequently is an easy way to reduce the strain and stiffness associated with sitting for long periods throughout the work day.
Dr. Rob Rogacki attended George Washington University where he earned his Doctor Of Physical Therapy. He believes in fostering patient independence throughout the rehab process, empowering patients to take control of their symptoms and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. Learn more about Rob and the other Therapydia DC physical therapists.