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“It is most commonly caused by muscle strain and fatigue that builds up over time,” Dr. Alex Zouzias, neurosurgeon at New York Methodist Hospital who specializes in complex and minimally invasive spine surgery, says. “The human head weighs 8-10 pounds on average and the posterior and anterior neck muscles have to work overtime to maintain this large sphere on a relatively thin post (the neck),” he adds.
Stress and poor posture can cause the head to be held forward in a biomechanically unfavorable position, which causes excessive strain on the already overworked musculature and results in chronic pain.
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“Humans were not built to sit at desks and stare at computer screens for 8-10 hours daily,” Dr. Zouzias, says. “Prolonged forced posture in a sitting position, with a hunched back and head jutting forward/neck flexed, will certainly cause chronic neck pain and cervical disk degeneration over time,” he adds.
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Athletes such as cyclists and bodybuilders may overdevelop their chest muscles in comparison to those in the back and neck. “This imbalance can result in cervical posture syndrome: a condition where the shoulders are pulled forward, the scapulae (shoulder blades) protrude away from the spine, and the chin is set forward,” Dr. Zouzias says. In this syndrome, neck pain also tends to increase chronically over time.
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“Walking and texting causes the neck to be held in an extremely biomechanically unfavorable position: flexed forward and bent down,” Dr. Zouzias says. This puts extreme strain on the posterior neck musculature and the cervical disks. Over time, this unnatural positioning leads to disk degeneration and chronic pain.
“Also, holding your phone in the crook of your neck and talking is just as bad,” he adds. “If you have to spend a great deal of time talking on your mobile, use a hands-free headset.”
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A common side effect of stress is headaches but it can also take a toll on the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Stress and anxiety lead to muscle tension. This is the natural fight-or-flight response of the body. When stress persists, so does the tension.
Stress also plays a role in how people feel certain aches. If your neck hurts just mildly, stress is likely to exacerbate the sensation and turn it into severe pain.
Dr. Zouzias recommends that anyone suffering from neck or lower back pain look into the McKenzie Method, a series of exercises for the cervical and lumbar spine developed by a physical therapist from New Zealand. “Please remember that initially, these exercises should be performed under the guidance of a trained physical therapist,” he adds.
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Magnesium is a muscle relaxant. “Skeletal muscle contraction is a result of uptake of calcium in muscle tissue receptors sensitive to both calcium and magnesium ions,” Dr. Zouzias says. “Simplifying a great deal, supplementing your magnesium intake can cause relaxation of chronically stressed and contracted neck muscle by partially blocking these receptors.”
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If you are waking up with severe neck pain, consider sleeping on a water pillow. “Water pillows allow customizable neck support which can be adjusted to the user's preference by adding or removing fluid, in addition to local muscle cooling properties,” Dr. Zouzias says. “If memory foam pillows are not sufficient for a patient with chronic neck pain, water pillows may be a logical next step.”
The downsides are increased weight and potential noise if an air pocket develops in the water pillow, he adds.
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“Swimming and aqua-therapy in general can be very beneficial for chronic neck pain, as swimming directly engages and strengthens the muscles of the upper back and neck (such as the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles),” Dr. Zouzias says. “However, proper technique is a must; otherwise, neck pain can actually worsen after a swim.”