Understanding why you have a pain in the neck may help you make the right adjustments to heal it.

 

In literature, you will find many reasons for pains and aches at work; but in fact, all aches and pains come down to an uncontrolled load accumulation on your loco-motor system which involves your muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and nerves.

 

Pain as a cumulative disorder

Your loco-motor system can be compared to a glass in which you pour liquid (mechanical load) throughout your daily activities such as work, household tasks and hobbies. How much you pour depends on how much you do, and on how well you use your body. The load is evacuated (emptied)by sleeping, relaxing or exercising.

When you pour more liquid than you remove, the glass ends-up over-flowing, and pain appears. But until then, you barely feel anything.

Many blame the last drop for the overflow: ‘I did not sleep well, so I have a stiff neck’. Actually, a bad night sleep is more likely to be the last drop on a neck that was wrongly used for a long time already.

To prevent, or manage work-related pain, one should therefore investigate why there is an unbalance between load accumulation and load evacuation.

 

Finding a wayout

Symptomatic treatments aim at emptying the glass. They make you feel better quickly, but do not greatly change the flows in and out of the glass. Their effect often disappears after a while.

A more durable solution is to:

  • reduce the accumulation of load on the locomotor system;
  • increase the load evacuation; and
  • ensure that the glass is big enough.

The first step implies either to do less (which is often difficult, and not necessarily recommended), or to do the same in a better way.

 

Hazards in professional and personal lives

My experience working with personal assistants has shown me that:

  • Your office environment can often be improved: a well-adjusted chair, a height-adjustable desk and a phone headset are often missing.
  • Your sitting posture needs correction: many people either sit on the front edge of the seat with a hollow back, or slouch in their chair.
  • You use the mouse much more than keyboard shortcuts.
  • Your stress level is high, and you lack control on your workload.
  • You do not take regular enough breaks, and you do not use them to relax your muscles.
  • Numerous hazards in your personal life complete these work-related ones: unhealthy ‘natural’ (or rather usual) posture, young children forcing you to bend forward or lift them without really paying attention to your posture and a poor lifestyle (too little physical activity, smoking or excessive drinking).

You may have recognised two categories of hazards from this list: extrinsic ones, and intrinsic ones. The former are those that I or anybody can fix for you, for example I can provide you with a new chair and adjust it. The latter are those that only you are able to modify through behavioural change.

 

Changing your behaviour

The four steps of behavioural change are:

  1. You are not aware of what you do wrongly.
  2. Someone makes you aware of it, and explains you why it is wrong.
  3. You learn how to correct and feel the difference between right and wrong.
  4. Practicing many times allows you to implement this new way into your habits.

When you go to buy an office chair and ask the salesperson to advise you on how to sit, they often jump to step three, and tell you: ‘sit with your knees at 90 degrees and lean against the backrest’.

Improving your posture (or any other behaviour-related issue) assumes that you feel, joint by joint, the difference between right and wrong postures (or movements). Feeling what happens when you sit too low versus what happens when you sit too high, is necessary to appreciate the comfort of sitting at the right height, and hence recognise all the daily situations in which you sit at a wrong height.

To conclude, keep in mind that work-related issues are multi-faceted, and that different hazards require different approaches. Recognize the true role of your current therapist in the glass model, and seek additional help to master habit-related hazards at work as well as at home.

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Olivier Girard is a mechanical engineer who later became an ergonomist and a posture and movement therapist. Most of his clients are office workers to whom he teaches how to prevent or manage muscle and joint pains, whether they are work- or age-related. ... (Read More)

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