Many employees would say that their jobs can be a pain in the neck. This may be a figure of speech, but it can be a reality when so much time is spent sitting in an office with less than ideal posture. So what happens when our daily posture causes pain, particularly tension headaches?
What is a tension headache?
A tension headache is caused by tight muscles in the skull and neck. It is often described as an achy, dull pain and is classically felt around the forehead or the back of the head (where the skull meets the neck). This tightening effects blood flow to the muscles of the neck and head and can cause a painful cycle of pain. Other symptoms that differentiate it from other types of headaches include bilateral symptoms and no nausea or photophobia. In a recent study in Denmark, it was estimated that as high as 78% of the population would experience this type of headache at least once in their lifetime.
The underlying contributor of pain is tigthening of the muscles around the neck and head from excessive contractions. This can be caused by a whole gambit of reasons such as stress, poor circulation, hunger, caffeine, alcohol, smoking, cold or flu, eye strain and poor posture. Luckily a lot of these can be changed with little effort.
Why posture is key
With poor posture, in order to see what is in front of us rather than just starting at the floor, something has to give. For the body, this is most easily done (and with the least amount of energy) by overextending the upper cervical spine. Unfortunately, this hyperextended position is basically squishing and limiting a lot of the muscles that live in that small space at the base of your neck. Plus, the pinching is causing decreased blood flow to this area and your brain. Talk about a literal brain fog. Lastly, to add further insult to injury, since the entire head it further forward than it should be these squished muscles are expected to work harder in this compromised position. It has been found that the work these muscles needs to do exponentially increases with each extra degree forward of the head. A study from 2014 confirmed that a 10-12 lb. head in a neutral position will feel like 40 lbs. with the head at 30 degree angle. That’s a significant weight difference, ouch!
Our work environment is setting us up for failure
If you take a look around at people working at their desks, it’s pretty easy to spot poor posture. Most of us know that this familiar “C” shaped posture is bad for our health, yet most of us continue to assume it day after day. Why? First, because we are habitual creatures and it has literally been hardwired into our brains if we assume a bad posture often enough. Second, most of us are in an environment that encourages poor posture (poorly positioned chair, sitting too long, badly adjusted monitor, etc.). With posture being such a chronic problem that affects most of us 40 hours her week, addressing it is crucial. Realistically, there is only so much any other changes will do to break the cycle of pain if posture isn’t addressed.
First, fix your posture! Not sure where to start? Knowing the basics of spine anatomy is a good place to start, check out Flexispot’s blog article on this here. Setting up your environment to optimize your posture will make a huge difference. This means getting ergonomic office equipment, such as a standing desk and an adjustable monitor mount. If you’re not sure where to start, Flexispot can help you build your ergonomic workstation. Specifically for the neck, a monitor mount will be helpful to keep your neck out of a forward head strained position to see the screen.
Then, address any other health issues that may be contributing. Decrease your sugar, caffeine and alcohol intake. Exercise regularly to optimize circulation, strength, flexibly and manage stress. (Check out these simple stretches to start here.) Address major stressors in your life that are under your control. Use things like yoga, breath control and meditation for those life stressors that you can’t control. Then, if you need extra assistance, talk to a health care professional such as an orthopedist, physical therapist, massage therapist or chiropractor.
Make the right lifestyle changes and set your environment up for success and headaches don’t stand a chance!