If the body’s skeleton was a building, the spine could easily be considered its foundation. A not-so-healthy spine can cause pain and functional issues from the head—which rests atop the spine—to the arms, trunk and legs. I routinely see this in my practice.
While a crick in the neck or a knot in the back are something nearly everyone experiences, there are steps you can take to help prevent ongoing neck and spine issues. Here are my top tips.
1. Get moving
The most important step you can take to prevent neck and spine pain is staying active. Being active helps build strength and flexibility, as well as maintain bone density as we age. Being active doesn’t necessarily mean performing an intense work out. Activity can be considered a walk, bike ride, swim, playing a recreational sport, working in the yard or just about anything else that gets the body moving.
2. The right posture
People are spending more time sitting in front of screens, where it’s easy to fall into the trap of poor posture—forward-leaning head and slouching shoulders. This all adds up to more pressure on the base of the skull and muscle fatigue, often resulting in neck pain or back pain.
Be more conscientious about sitting upright and keeping your head aligned with the spine. Imagine holding a bowling ball out in front of you. Your arms would get fatigued much more quickly than if you held it close to your body. The same is true with respect to the head leaning forward rather than aligned over the body.
3. Motion is lotion
Light range of motion exercises are a great tool for keeping your neck healthy. To perform these exercises, you can be sitting, standing or even lying in bed:
- Turn your head as far as you can to the left and touch your chin to your shoulder, then turn your head all the way the right and touch your chin to your other shoulder. Repeat 10 times in each direction a couple times a day.
- Another exercise involves retracting the chin into the chest (as though you were trying to make a double chin). Repeat 10 times. This helps strengthen the deep flexor muscles of the neck and aids in good posture.
Although these are both safe, simple exercises, if you do experience any radiating pain, numbness or tingling while performing them, you should stop and reach out to your doctor if it worsens.
4. Avoid self-adjustments
When it comes to self-manipulation (‘cracking’ or ‘popping’) of the neck or back, it really should be left up to a professional like a chiropractor. A chiropractor can not only offer safe manipulation but also show you different stretches or exercise techniques that may be appropriate for you to do at home.
5. Take a break and Brugger
Remaining in the same position for hours on end should be avoided if possible. That means alternating between a sitting and standing position. To make it easier to track, change positions every hour, on the hour.
When you change positions, take a break to stretch or do the Brugger exercise. For this exercise, sit up straight at the edge of a chair with your feet flat on the ground and arms to your side. Stretch your arms out and then backward, while pinching your shoulder blades together. This can help relax tight neck and back muscles.
6. Breathe better
It’s common to breathe using the chest and sucking the belly in. Over time, though, this can contribute to dysfunction or unneeded stress on the diaphragm. Instead, practice diaphragmatic breathing (aka belly breathing), using the abdomen.
Most people have been exposed to this type of breathing either through an activity like martial arts, dance, yoga or singing, or as part of a relaxation exercise. Interestingly, belly breathing is actually the breathing pattern you are born with, but over time, environmental factors lead to more chest breathing. Relearning to activate the diaphragm can also relieve some of the fatigue in the accessory neck muscles which are overutilized in chest breathing.
Experiencing neck or back pain?
Following these six tips can help prevent neck and spine issues altogether. If at some point you do experience neck or back pain, the good news is that it typically goes away on its own.
However, if the pain reduces your function or adversely impacts quality of life, it’s time to seek help. Talk to your doctor about next steps and whether you need a referral to a spine expert.
About the author
Jesse Cooper, DC, is a chiropractor on staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Round Rock 300 University. Dr. Cooper has an expertise in chronic pain, functional rehabilitation and interdisciplinary collaboration. He helped establish the Department of Chiropractic Medicine within Baylor Scott & White Health. He has a passion for research and continues to publish studies aimed at improving spine care and modernizing chiropractic education. He enjoys volunteering his time at Georgetown High School athletic events and the Wounded Warrior Project. When he is not busy caring for patients, Dr. Cooper loves hiking, fishing and spending time with his friends and family.