Jun 12

8 Muscles That Cause Neck Pain at your Desk and Causes Behind Them

Working at a desk for 8+ hours a day can be a pain in the neck, figuratively and literally. We have all had that same tight grabbing pain in our as the day progresses. The next morning we wake up with our neck stiff as a board and think, “Did I play a pro football game yesterday or did I get hit by a buffalo at some point?” No, my friends, that’s just the price you pay when you have a poor ergonomic workstation and work at a desk all day. Muscles Related to Neck Pain Before we start to run through the causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment of cervical spine and shoulder desk related injuries we need to have a solid basis of the anatomy. Below, I’ve included some pictures that will help explain the anatomy far better than I ever could. I do want to highlight a couple of key structures that will be popping up throughout this article. Muscle of the Anterior and Lateral Neck (photo credit above) Muscles of the Upper Back (photo credit digikalla.info)Pectoral Group– a large broad muscle group that covers a majority of the chest. These muscles are commonly overactive/shortened in desk workers. Since we perform a majority our work in front of us, they are contracted continuously to keep our arms in the forward position. Upper trapezius/levator scapulae– this group of muscles covers a majority of the posterior neck and portions of the shoulder. They allow our shoulder blade (scapula) to move up and down and are often overactive (contracted) in desk workers. This group can also refer pain to the neck and cause headaches as the day progress. Suboccipital muscles– this group of muscles sits right below the lower portion of your skull (occiput). They aid in the movement of the neck and most notably rotation of the head on the neck. The suboccipitals are notorious for causing headaches from staring at a computer screen too long. Once again this group is known to be overactive/shortened in desk workers. Scalenes group– these muscles originate on the lateral parts of the neck vertebral bodies and insert into the 1st and 2nd ribs. Their function is flexion of the neck, lateral flexion of the neck and aid in breathing mechanics. If the scalenes are overactive, they may compress the brachial plexus (a nerve bundle that comes out of the neck). Compression of the brachial plexus can lead to numbness in the arm and hands are commonly known as Thoracic outlet syndrome. Sternocleidomastoid muscle– this is the large meaty muscle that runs from the sternum to just behind your ear. The action of the SCM is to flex your head and allow the head to rotate from one side to another. While we are staring at our screens throughout the day, our cervical spine is naturally flexed forward, which is the main action of the SCM. Deep neck flexors– these muscles run along the front of the vertebrae in your neck and typically are turned off throughout the day. They are inactive due to the standard neck positioning while at your desk and also the fact that the above muscles are overactive. The deep neck flexors are crucial in stabilizing your neck. Yet, since they are turned off a majority of the time, they tend to become weak (if you don’t use it you lose it) and therefore play a role in chronic neck pain. Lower trapezius– this muscle is crucial in the stabilization of the scapula and therefore the entire shoulder complex. Unlike its overactive upper cousin, the lower trapezius is often inhibited/turned off. Weak scapular stabilizers are known to cause the rounding of shoulders (hunching over) which in turn causes pain within the upper back. Serratus Anterior– this is the last muscle in our quick anatomy lesson because I’m assuming you are all sleeping by now or scrolled through this section already. The S.A. sits in-between the scapula and the rib cage. The S.A. is a primary stabilizer of the scapula, which can cause the rounding of your shoulders as discussed above. Causes of Neck and Shoulder painLack of upper back support– The sole purpose of a backrest is to support the entirety of the back (heck it’s even in the name). Yet for some reason, there seems to be a trend with short backrests in the computer chair market. A short back rest’s lack of upper back support puts added strain on the posterior muscles of the back. Their purpose is to make sure you don’t fall forward onto your keyboard and stabilizing the motion 8+ hours a day takes a severe toll.Monitor Height is too low– Eye level of your monitor should be at the upper 1/3 of your screen. In the majority of cases, monitor height is too low causing the head to tilt at a downward angle. This head positioning causes the muscle of the posterior neck to fatigue from stabilization and the anterior neck muscles to become tight.Hunching forward while working/gaming– The classic hunched over computer worker position (see below) is one that is common as you type throughout the day, however, you may just not notice it. The first problem is head protrusion forward causing neck strain. The muscles of the back are stretched and fatigued throughout the whole process. The complete opposite happens in the chest where the pecs are consistently contracted/tightened. This chronic out of balanced position can snowball more and more as time passes.Classic Desk Posture (photo credit writingandwellness.com) Viewing documents on your desk surface– It still boggles my mind how people can not feel the straining effects of looking straight down for hours on end. The downward head tilt places your neck in a flexed forward position. Once again, causing the muscles of the neck and upper back to continually become more out of balance. Viewing multiple computer monitors– This scenario isn’t detrimental as long as you have the screens set up correctly. The primary screen should be directly in front of you with the secondary display directly to the side. Screens that are too far apart or split in front of you will cause the rotary muscles of the neck (see above if you skipped down here) to be overactive and strained. Phone cradling– The classic position of holding the phone between your shoulders and ear for extended periods of time. In recent years many workers have switched to headsets, which helps alleviate this old-school issue. In this position, we see a significant amount of stress placed on the trapezius muscle. The trap muscle becomes contracted and can spasm if held for prolonged periods of time. Causes of shoulder painA majority of desk related shoulder injuries arise in the dominant hand, but can periodically occur in both. Shoulder pain can result from numerous sources, but for our purposes, I want to focus on desk related causes. Keyboard distance– The distance of the keyboard, from your body to your outstretched hand isn’t a set distance. Instead, you want the arm/shoulder complex to make a relative 90-degree angle at the elbow. If you are looking for a solid gaming keyboard that meets all of my criteria check the guys out at Dygma. 90-degree elbow positioning (photo credit walkingmama.com) Poor wrist positioning– The wrist should be in a relatively straight line in relation to the elbow. Most individuals have the elbow below the wrist, which puts the wrist in extension. Wrist extension causes strain on the tissues of the wrist and can lead to numbness throughout the hand if it’s not corrected. Lack of a proper backrest– The absence of a decent backrest puts a strain not only on the upper back but also the shoulder complex. Leaning forward with the neck, back, and shoulder causes the anterior muscles to contract (shorten) and the posterior muscles to be strained (lengthened). Both groups were anatomically designed to be in the most neutral position possible when at rest. Desk work and more importantly poor forward posture changes all of that. Cogwheels of Proper Posture (photo credit aneskey.com) The second part of this article will be covering prevention and treatments that you can use to help combat daily neck pain. A majority of the upcoming prevention steps can be found in our equipment series that we did last month. Literally, every piece of the desk setup is broken down and explained to improve your workstation (except the paper clip, I didn’t want anyone getting too attached …….jokes). Have a great day and please email us or comment below any questions you may have. We are here to help!Dr. Drew FTW! Blog

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