Woke up with pain in your neck?

Have you ever woken up with intense neck pain? Find you are suddenly unable to turn your head? Ever yawn and experience a sudden grab in your neck? How about a niggle in your neck that just won’t go away? If you have experienced any of these things, I’m sure you will agree – neck troubles are best avoided!

With ideal posture, our head sits in line with our body, on top of our shoulders. In this position, there is minimal load on the neck. Unfortunately, the seated position tends to bring our head forwards from our body. This is worse when paired with gazing at a screen, a book or the TV. This is not good news for the disc at the base of our neck, which can become injured as a result.

Neck disc problems often trigger pain and spasm that reduce our ability to turn our head. This can result in a stiff neck appearance akin to the Thunderbird puppets of the 1960s British TV series.

Take some simple precautions to ensure that you don’t end up moving like a 1960s science fiction Icon.

Neck Anatomy

The spine is made up of a stack of blocks of bone called vertebrae. We have discs located in between each of the vertebrae, which are fused to each vertebra above and below. The discs act like a cushion or shock absorber to protect our brain.

The discs in our neck are made up of concentric rings of fibrous tissue, surrounding a pocket of jelly in the centre.

When our neck is straight and our head is in line with our body, the discs are loaded evenly with the jelly nucleus located in the centre. In this neutral position, our neck and the discs within it are evenly loaded. This means minimal damaging stress is put on surrounding soft tissues.

When you bend your head and neck forwards, the front of the disc compresses and the jelly pocket gets pushed towards the back of the disc. When you bend your head and neck backwards, the opposite happens––the back of the disc compresses taking the jelly forwards in the disc.

All of these movements are normal when performed in small doses. It is when certain postures are prolonged or excessive that problems can arise.

What goes wrong

When the head spends large amounts of time sitting forwards of the body, the disc at the base of the neck spends a lot of time compressed at the front with the jelly getting pushed towards the back of the disc. This forward head posture, therefore, leads to progressive damage to the back wall of the disc. Damage can occur without you even being aware of it. The nerves only supply the very outer edge of the disc, so it is only when the damage becomes severe enough to swell and distend the back wall of the disc that you become aware of pain.

Pain can come on gradually or suddenly and is always accompanied by an inconvenient degree of protective muscle spasm which can prevent your head from turning properly––the ‘Thunderbird Effect’.

Disc injuries in the neck can be very slow to settle, lasting weeks, months or years. If they are not managed properly, they can come back to haunt you again and again.

Take action before you break

Don’t let your head keep creeping forward off your shoulders!

I bet you don’t even notice it lot of the time, but it only takes looking at a screen, smartphone or even an old fashioned book for your head to sneak forward from its rightful position on top of your shoulders. This forward head position itself isn’t the issue; it’s the amount of time you spend doing it.

A well-aligned head in a neutral position should be the default posture for your neck with forward head positions just a temporary departure.

Computer set up is clearly important as are exercises to restore the disc pressures.


Injury Proof Toolkit

 1) Change your environment

Make it easy to maintain the neutral position of your neck:

  • Support your gadget so that you are looking ahead not down.
  • Ensure your computer screen is at eye level (for a laptop this might mean a riser and separate keyboard).
 2) Change your habits

Follow these guidelines:

  • Get up from your chair for a minimum of 10 minutes every hour for the first three hours then five minutes every half hour after that.
  • Sit tall, with your head back in line with your body in the neutral position.
  • If at all possible, keep computer use to a maximum of four hours a day, five days a week.
  • Take every opportunity to do non-sitting activities: walk at lunchtime, post mail, chat at the water cooler!
3) Add this exercise

Chin Tuck

  1. Sit or stand up tall, looking straight ahead.
  2. Pull the chin straight back, creating a double chin.
  3. Do not look up or tip the head up.
  4. Return to starting position.
  5. Repeat ten times.

Doing 10 chin tucks every hour helps to relieve pressure in the discs and reminds your body where the head should be.

What now?

If you follow all of these recommendations and it still does not improve your neck issue, you may need to get a physiotherapy consultation.