The Link Between Neck Pain and Computer Work

The photo at right is a classic example of today's typical "computer slouch."

Look at the angle of the neck, the slump of the chest, and the rounded shoulders. If you sit like that long enough, you will develop neck, shoulder, and back pain. You might even find it difficult to take a full breath. This is called the Startle Reflex. Thomas Hanna called it the Red Light Reflex.

It is rare to meet someone nowadays who doesn't spend significant amounts of time on the computer.

Even senior citizens are now reconnecting with old friends, not to mention staying in touch with grandchildren, via Facebook and email. Children are beginning to use computers on a daily basis, both in school and at home - often in place of outdoor play. Hundreds of millions of people work at computer terminals, often for hours at a stretch without getting up.

Any repeated movement or posture becomes a habit.

If you have to sit for hours, with elbows bent, wrists immobile and fingers typing rapidly, the brain will teach the muscles to be ready to sit and type again, in just the same manner, the next day. The wrists will be tight, the biceps tighter than usual to hold the arms steady and the neck will hold your head right where it needs to be in order to look at your computer screen. Eventually this learned posture can lead to muscular pain, TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck, and shoulder problems. This state of chronically contracted muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia. No amount of strengthening and stretching can get rid of this. You must learn how to sense and move your muscles again in order to regain freedom of movement and reverse this posture.

Children have the same potential as adults to become stuck in an habituated, slumped posture - one that tightens the chest, restricts breathing, overuses the back, neck, and shoulder muscles, and can eventually lead to postural dysfunction and muscular pain. They are learning, at an increasingly young age, to slump and tighten the front of their body as they play video games or use their iPads. Encouraging children to spend time outdoors moving - running, riding bicycles, jumping, climbing trees, playing - will go a long way in keeping a child aware of his body and healthier in the long run.

Here are a few helpful Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk every hour. They will teach you to release, relax, and lengthen your muscles - and eliminate neck and shoulder pain - while increasing body awareness.

The Flower - This movement teaches the muscles of the front of the body to release and lengthen so you can stand up to a relaxed and balanced neutral again. This will also help you breath more deeply and fully.

Here are some neck pandiculations that help me when I have to spend time at the computer:

Turn your head to the right at a 45 degree angle.

Slowly tighten your left shoulder up toward the ear, as you slowly tighten your neck back toward the left shoulder blade.

You'll feel a contraction at the top of the shoulder and on the left side of the neck.

Slowly lengthen out of the contraction, and allow the neck to lengthen as the chin points to the right chest. The shoulder relaxes back to neutral.

Repeat 3 times, then do the same sequence on the other side.

Remember to move slowly for greater awareness in retraining your muscles to relax.

You are teasing out the muscle tightness, not by stretching, but by pandiculating - tightening first, then lengthening, much like a yawn. This movement should help you become more aware of the habit of hunching the shoulders. Once you're aware of a habit, it's more easily reversible.

3 Steps to Relieve Arm, Hand, and Wrist Pain

In my last post, I shared an email from a client who had severe arm, hand, and wrist pain. Rather than stretching those muscles (which can potentially make them tighter) or attempting to relax them through trigger point therapy or passive release, I guided my client to become aware of what she was doing with her body every day that contributed to a full body pattern of muscle tightness that contributed to her carpal tunnel syndrome.

black-and-white-elderly-fingers-54321.jpg

With arm, forearm, and hand pain, the brain is actively telling the muscles of the arms and hands  to stay tightly contracted. This could occur due to computer work, holding and using tools (as in construction),  fine motor work (such as jewelry making), or any repetitive action of the wrist. An involuntary pattern of contraction can become habituated if the muscles aren't taught, daily, how to release and relax.

Pandiculation is key

The most effective, long-term solution is to pandiculate these muscles: contracting them first just enough to feel the muscles, then slowly releasing them into full relaxation. This reeducates the muscles to both fully contract, and then fully release - and it happens at the level of your brain and nervous system.

Step 1: Release your center

To release the muscles of your periphery, you must first address the muscles of the center of the body that contribute to tight forearms. Remember that the body works as a whole cooperative system, not as a separate series of interchangeable parts. Somatic Exercises such as Arch & Flatten, Arch & Curl, or the Back Lift will help you to release your center. Relax the large muscles in the center of the body, and the periphery (the arms, hands, legs and feet) will move more freely, relax more completely and move more efficiently.

Step 2: Be aware of your body

Pay attention to the way in which you sit when you're at the computer, drive, or use your arms and hands in your work. Slumping to one side, or tightening one shoulder is a pattern that can contribute to arm, hand, and wrist pain. When you are aware of your movement habits, you will more easily recognize what you do on a daily basis to contribute to your pain. When you can recognize these habits as they happen, you can correct yourself in real time.

Step 3: Maintain a daily routine of Somatic Exercises

Enjoy this self-care video and notice how much more relaxed and free your arms, hands, and wrist feel. A daily practice of Somatic Exercises to keep muscle tension and pain at bay is as important as brushing your teeth to prevent cavities.

Pain Relief For Carpal Tunnel and Arm Pain

I'd like to share a story sent to me by a client how Somatic Movements helped her relieve her arm pain, wrist pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome and become more aware of how she works at her desk:

Lately I've been having hand, wrist, and forearm pain. It had been getting worse for about 2-3 months. In the last 2 weeks it's been so painful that it also reduced my grip strength severely. I need my hands for my work, so this is not acceptable. Most of the pain is centered on my right forearm near the elbow, and around the wrist when using the mouse with my computer. The pain and problem even affects my ability to take notes with a pencil! I spend much time at the computer, running my own businesses. I do a lot of research using only my mouse-hand to click.

I told Martha about the problem and she told me that the issue was probably Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in my arm, which affected my hand. The muscles had "forgotten" to stop contracting. I now know a lot about SMA and Hanna Somatics, but I was thinking that I had a repetitive stress injury. Martha reminded me that "repetitive stress injury" was about contracting the same muscles over a long amount of time, and "freezing up," which was the definition of SMA.

We scheduled a Skype video session. I showed her my injured muscles as well as my health history. Then she showed me a series of Somatic movements designed to reduce the muscle tension and lessen my muscle  pain. She also asked me many questions about my posture and my [computer] working habits.

Later that night, the pain returned. I could see the difference between my mouse arm and my other arm: my mouse arm and hand was "thicker" and tighter. Hanna Somatics practitioners are trained to assess clients' muscle tightness to determine if the body is holding excess muscle tension. My arm was very painful and I could not even close my hand; if I could close my hand, the effort hurt. This is how I realize that my hand was stuck in a contracted holding-mouse position.

I repeated the series of forearm and wrist movements that Martha taught me over our Skype session. Instantly, after completing the series (it took about 5 minutes), I could feel my muscles relax, and my arm was not swollen or tight anymore. I could close my hand, too. My arm felt relaxed, which relaxed my body, and I was without pain. I remembered that Martha said that we are retraining the brain to relax the muscles.

However, I realized that when I returned to my computer, the pain and stiffness returned - I didn't even need to be "repetitive" in my movements.

I am now working on changing my posture, chair height, mouse position, and tension level. Martha even told me that tensing an entire arm, or leaning on my arm, can affect all the way down to my hand! It's been about 24 hours since working with Martha on my wrist, hand and arm. I can release my own pain, and now I am working on fixing the conditions that make the pain return. I am looking forward to working with Martha more to pinpoint my posture and tension habits. However I have learned to release any pain that arises... and soon will improve my body-awareness enough to keep the pain away forever.

In my next post I will share a video of the movements and techniques I taught this client during our Skype session. Stay tuned!