I have been blessed my relative lack of neck pain during most of my life. However, I have noted a few episodes of neck stiffness after sitting too long at the computer. These episodes have made me more empathetic for the people I see in the office with complaints of neck pain. It is miserable to not be able to turn your head or have constant neck pain and all that goes with it.
Studies have shown that neck pain is consistently associated with a decrease in endurance of the neck extensors muscles.[i] This makes sense on several levels.
I tell my patients that our head weighs about as much as a bowling ball (or if you are like that kid William in Mike Myers’ “So I Murdered an Axe Murderer” and have your own weather system for your head than maybe little more than a bowling ball). [If that reference here is a link to a youtube clip from this movie and the scene referenced]
If we slouch our head drops in front of the shoulders and this increases the strain on muscles and joints trying to keep the head upright. That is why the extensor muscles of the neck are so important. They do the heavy lifting of holding us upright and keeping the head in a neutral/ideal posture.
The correlation between a decrease in endurance of the neck extensors and pain holds true for people who have never had spine surgery and also for people with a history of prior neck surgery (ACDF). [ii]
So what can be done? Exercise.
There is good evidence that exercises specifically intended to build endurance in the extensors muscles for the cervical spine can help to address these deficits and decrease pain.[iii]
Here is a simple exercise that I like to work on the spine extensors (not just the neck but helpful for the low back as well).
[i] J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2007 Jun;30(5):343-50.
[ii] J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2007 Jun;30(5):343-50.
[iii] Clin Neurophysiology. 2006 Apr;117(4):828-37. Epub 2006 Feb 21.