Do you have ‘chicken neck’? Nine ways to avoid neck and lower back pain

A bad neck position when sitting can affect the alignment of the spine, shorten muscles and tendons and cause problems with the neck and lower back. Here’s what to do to avoid pain and injury

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 5:37pm

Have you ever had pain in your neck or lower back? Chances are, the two are related.

When we’re seated, the way we position our neck to balance our head directly dictates the position of our lower back. Why? Quite simply, the spine is made up of multiple curves suited to carry the weight of the head and position the pelvis.

These curves in the neck and lower back often mirror one another.

For example, if the neck is hyperextended when seated (a position known as “chicken neck”, with head stuck forward and down, with shoulders slouched) the nerves of the neck are pinched and muscles shortened, causing pain and shoulder tension. This is made worse by improper alignment of your feet, chair and desk.

Consequently, when you move around, the curves in the lower back that have been compressed feel stiff. It’s something many of us notice when we do finally stand up – needing to support our lower back with our hands, or wincing as we straighten up.

By understanding why this happens we can prevent it, and – in doing so – avoid long lasting damage.

It all starts with our central nervous system (CNS), which comprises the brain and spinal cord.

Importantly, the CNS “talks” to the peripheral nervous system that branches out past the brain and spine and feeds essential information back to the CNS.

Communication to the nerve endings in the lumbar region (lower back) depends on proper spinal mechanics all the way up the spinal cord. If the spine is compressed in the lumbar region – which happens when you are in chicken neck mode – communication down the neural chain will be compressed as well.

Lower back pain causes more disability than any other condition

So proper neck alignment is critical for full spinal mobility and the flow of neural data elsewhere in our bodies. Like phone lines that go dead during a conversation, without correct communication we are unable to stand, walk or bend without pain and stiffness – and over time we lose mobility and motor control, meaning the chances of suffering injury are higher.

So what can we do to avoid this? Here are nine suggestions.

1. Ensure your workplace desk is set up to enable optimal cervical spine alignment.

2. Stretch the neck. The founder of Pilates, Joseph Pilates, forecast the future of bad posture and developed the “neck stretcher”, a device designed to lengthen and properly position the neck as the user performed a seated roll down (seated with legs hip-width apart, allow the head to fold forward and down with spine curved). This encourages a full range of spinal mobility.

3. Actively strengthen the posterior neck muscles in their long position: place both palms against your forehead and gently push your head against your palms, trying to take your chin down to meet your chest. Maintain for as long as is comfortable. Repeat with head hanging back, hands on either side of the back of the skull, elbows wide. Ensure shoulders are down and straight.

Lower back pain: exercise circuit

4. Regularly stand up and sit down, but don’t use your hands to push up. Engage your core and keep shoulders down.

5. If you’re sending e-mails to someone on the other side of the room, walk over and talk to them instead.

6. Twist that torso. Turn to the right, inhale deeply and grab the back of your chair with your right hand and the arm of the chair with your left, eyes on the middle distance. Grip the arm of the chair to twist your torso as far as possible. Hold. Repeat on the other side.

Is your posture spine-friendly?

7. Give yourself a hug. Place your right hand over the side of your left shoulder and the left hand over the side of your right shoulder. Breathe in and out, pulling on the area between the shoulder blades.

8. Sit or stand, then look up. Stretch arms overhead, interlock fingers and turn palms up. Lift your chin, tilt your head back and take in that ceiling. Inhale, exhale, release. Repeat as often as you like.

9. Shrug your shoulders as high as your ears. Inhale deeply and release. Try this a few times.