Harvard Health Letter

Do habits cause your neck pain?

Sit up straight, keep electronic screens at eye level, and try some strengthening exercises to reduce pain and feel better.

habits cause your neck pain
Looking down at a computer screen for prolonged periods may lead to neck pain.
Image: AndreyPopov/iStock

If your day involves using a smartphone or laptop, reading a book or magazine, or curling up on a couch to watch TV, your day may also include some nagging neck pain. That's because you may be bending your body in an unhealthy position for a prolonged period of time. "It's an overuse injury. Your body was designed to move, but you're forcing your neck and shoulders into one static position for too long," says Dr. Clare Safran-Norton, a physical therapist and clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Check your position

Looking down flexes your neck forward. Supporting this position requires the help of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles in your neck, and sometimes the shoulder and shoulder blade muscles such as the levator scapulae, the upper or middle trapezius, and the rhomboids. "After a while, the muscles will get tired, overstretched, and weak. If you do this excessively, your neck and shoulders will begin to hurt," says Dr. Safran-Norton.

The same is true if you're slumped on the couch or sitting with poor posture at your desk for a prolonged period of time, with your shoulders rounded and your neck bent forward.

Simple fixes

If you notice some neck soreness, Dr. Safran-Norton recommends raising your screen or reading material to eye level, so you don't have to look down as much. Even small changes can make a big difference. For instance:

  • Place a pillow on your lap, then rest your laptop or computer tablet on the pillow.

  • Raise your computer screen to eye level by placing the monitor on a stack of large, sturdy books.

  • Prop up a book in a book holder, and then place that on a pillow or table.

  • Keep your arms supported on the armrests of a chair.

Your posture is important, too. If you're sitting at a desk or a table, sit up straight, with your neck in line with the rest of your spine, and keep your shoulders back. Get up every hour to give your muscles a change of position.

If you're lounging on a comfy chair or couch, Dr. Safran-Norton suggests that you support your arms on armrests or on pillows. "The neck muscles are connected to the shoulder blade muscles, so when you take pressure off your arms, you take pressure off your shoulders, and the shoulder and neck muscles can relax," she says. Again, try to get up every hour.

Seeking help

If neck pain lasts more than two weeks, Dr. Safran-Norton suggests seeking professional help. More serious causes of neck pain include arthritis, neck bone spurs, ruptured discs in the spine, fractures, scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine), and old whiplash injuries. A good place to start is with a visit to your primary care physician or an orthopedic specialist. One of those doctors, after ruling out or addressing any underlying conditions, will likely refer you to a physical therapist.

A physical therapist can teach you neck exercises, such as a neck stretch. Start with your head in a neutral forward-facing position, then slowly turn your head to the right. Hold for a few seconds. Return to starting position, then turn your head to the left and hold the position for a few seconds. Don't roll your neck, however. "The neck was designed to mostly rotate left and right, forward and back, but it doesn't have as much motion for bending side to side," notes Dr. Safran-Norton.

Neck strengthening exercises can also help, such as a neck retraction (see "Move of the month"). A neck retraction also helps stretch the SCM muscles in the sides of your neck.

Dr. Safran-Norton suggests doing these exercises daily at first; later, a few times a week. Then, keep up good posture and eye-level reading to prevent further neck pain.

Move of the month: Neck retraction

1. Sit in a neutral position, holding your head in a normal resting position.

2. Next, slowly glide your head backward, tucking your chin in until you have pulled your head and chin as far back as they will go. Keep your head level and do not tilt or nod your head

3. Hold for three to five seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times.