Experts estimate that up to 80 percent of people will experience some form of neck pain in their lives, and as much as half of Americans will suffer from it this year alone.
Whether as an isolated episode for a few days or a more chronic complaint, neck pain is “almost guaranteed,” said Dr. Ram Alluri, an assistant clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California who specializes in spine surgery.
While nothing can totally prevent such discomfort, there are things you can do to lower your chances. It starts with building up the muscles in your neck and spine as well as, not surprisingly, improving your posture.
Neck pain starts in the spine.
While some neck pain is caused by accidents, falls or other traumatic events, most often it results from everyday movements like sitting on the couch, working on the computer, eating at the dinner table or driving, said Julia Bizjack, an orthopedic physical therapist for the Cleveland Clinic.
When you are young, hunching over your laptop for eight hours might not have much of an impact, but as you get older, the disks in your spine, which act as shock absorbers, lose their effectiveness, a condition called degenerative disk disease, Dr. Alluri said. The biggest driver of this disease, which is a form of arthritis, is genetics, he said. However, avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking, can help prevent it, because smoking can accelerate disk degeneration.
The best way to prevent neck pain is to strengthen the paraspinal muscles, which stretch from the base of your skull down the length of your spine and support your back and help maintain your posture, along with the abdominal muscles.
“If those muscles can be kept strong,” Dr. Alluri said, “they can prevent increased motion at the level of the actual disk and joints, and that can minimize or get rid of neck pain.”
A recent meta-analysis found that strength training, stretching and walking most likely reduce the recurrence of neck pain. Furthermore, Dr. Bizjack said, building the muscles in your upper back, chest and core helps keep your body in an upright position, which will also help prevent neck pain.
Build the Back to Protect the Neck
Most people lose strength in their upper back — including the paraspinal muscles — as they age, whether they have arthritis or not. This causes the shoulders and head to slump forward. The best way to counter this is to strengthen the back and shoulder muscles that hold your torso up straight, as opposed to rounded. You can get started at home without any weights or equipment with some neck-specific exercises.
A simple one to do at home or work starts in a chair with back support. Place your hand across your forehead and push forward against it as hard as you can while holding your head back with your hand. Push for 10 seconds, relax and repeat three times. You can also do this exercise with your hand on the back of your head, pushing your head backward.
Another at-home exercise to strengthen your core, back and shoulders is a plank, either in a push-up position or propped up on your elbows.
If you have access to weights, you can work your upper back with upright dumbbell rows. In this exercise, hold a dumbbell in each hand while standing and bend at the waist until your chest is parallel to the floor, knees slightly bent. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the dumbbells back toward your waist. If you have access to a gym, Dr. Bizjack recommended lat pull-downs rather than pull-ups, because it’s easier to maintain the correct form.
While Dr. Bizjack said there aren’t any particular exercises she would tell people to avoid, she said it is important to maintain good form when strength training, and as always, stop if something hurts.
Sit up straight.
While strong paraspinal muscles will help keep your shoulders and neck from collapsing forward, it’s also important to make a conscious effort to overcome poor posture, Dr. Bizjack said. Whether you’re at the computer, driving or watching TV, make sure your shoulders are up and back, not rounded. Your head should be in line with your straight back, not tilted forward.
Imagine getting as tall as possible and think about elongating your spine as if there’s a thread running from the top of your head to the ceiling. When working at the computer, adjust the height of your desk or your monitor so it’s eye level, which will prevent you from tilting your head forward while working.
Dr. Bizjack recommended getting a sticky note, writing “posture” on it and putting it on your computer. You can also set periodic reminders on your phone or fitness tracker to check your posture, especially if you spend long hours at your desk or in a car.
When driving (or sitting in an office chair) make sure you have proper lumbar support that helps you sit up tall. Instead of leaning forward over your steering wheel, bring your head back a bit toward the headrest, in line with your spine.
Finally, watch how you use your phone. Being hunched over it for hours will inevitably cause neck pain.
If you’re settling in for a night of reading and scrolling on your phone, Dr. Bizjack recommends propping your device on a pillow. Bring your phone close enough so you can keep your head upright, instead of bending forward, and take breaks or change positions — even lying on your back — to give your neck a rest.
Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer covering health and fitness.