On Fitness: Getting Rid of a Pain in the Neck

Strength training the neck muscles seems to make a big difference.

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I may be a health writer, but I admit to some not-so-healthful habits. Among them is the way I talk on the phone (which, as a reporter, I do pretty much all day): The cordless handset is sandwiched between my right ear and shoulder as I simultaneously type and talk, leading to neck strain and discomfort. It turns out I'm not the only one with a pain in the neck. Experts say that the prevalence has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years, and—among muscle pain—this is now second only to back pain in the amount of grief it causes. The culprit: desk jobs like mine, which don't demand much head or neck movement.

The good news is that it is rarely serious enough to require surgery and can often be resolved without medication. Exercise is often recommended as a treatment, and a new study out of Denmark found that strength training really seems to help. Researchers randomly split 42 women with neck pain and jobs involving monotonous movement (such as working on a computer or on an assembly line) into two groups, one of which did 10 weeks of exercises to strengthen the trapezius and surrounding muscles while the other was assigned to general fitness training (riding a bike). The results? While the cycling did have a small, short-term beneficial effect on neck pain, strength training, over time, cut the worst pain by almost 80 percent.

You can check out the specific exercises at a Danish website. (Yes, it's in Danish, but you can look at the pictures to get an idea of what exercises researchers used and print them out and take them to a personal trainer if you're new to strength training.) Study author Lars Andersen of the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen said in an E-mail that he has another forthcoming study looking at the effects of strength training on preventing neck pain in the first place. The exercises are nothing fancy—the women used basic hand weights to do shoulder lifts and other moves that work the neck and surrounding muscles. (They also progressively increased the amount of weight they used over the study.)

I also talked to David Borenstein, a rheumatologist and a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center who also has a private practice in Washington, D.C. He recommends stretching for prevention and as a relief to everyday, work-induced pain (if you have acute pain, a high fever, a loss of sensation with arm pain, or loss of bladder or bowel control, get to a doctor pronto). "Muscles like to contract and relax," he told me. So, for a few minutes every hour, stretch out your neck: Look down, up, and to the side; do some neck rolls. "Get up and move around!" he says.

Borenstein also says that if your chair adjusts, you can change the height every now and then by just enough to alter the tilt of your neck 5 degrees up or down from the horizontal. Chair armrests can take some of the load off your shoulders, which can also protect your neck. And make sure you have correct working posture, which means proper desk height and both feet on the floor.

If you already have chronic neck pain, the exercises in the study might help over time. Borenstein also recommends heat to loosen up tight muscles and cold (massage with an ice cube) to relieve pain in a specific spot. And I can report that using a phone headset, which I tried for the first time while talking to Borenstein, goes a long way toward reducing neck tension.