How to prevent and manage upper back and neck pain

Upper back and neck pain includes symptoms that can influence the functionality of the cervical spine and shoulders, and can provoke tension headaches and scapula pain. 

There are various causes for upper back and neck pain. Improper lifting, postural imbalances, injuries, being overweight and smoking, are just some of the possible causes. 

Upper back and neck pain is especially common for desk/office-based workers,  due to lack of movement or a slouched posture that puts stress on the spine and back muscles.

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent upper back and neck pain:

  • Exercises: movement helps to maintain flexibility in your joints. It has been shown that exercising for at least 1 hour per week can prevent neck pain
  • If you are overweight, losing weight may reduce the risk of back pain
  • Posture: whenever you are sitting or standing, keep your shoulders in a straight line over your hips and your ears directly over your shoulders. When using phones or other small screens, keep your head up and hold the device straight in front of you rather than bending your neck to look down at the device
  • Do not carry heavy bags on your shoulders
  • Ergonomics: If you are often sitting at a desk, it is essential to have an appropriate workstation; Feet must be supported, knees bent at 90 degrees and thighs parallel to the floor, the monitor should be set at eye-level or slightly lower, sufficient leg space is required
  • Frequent breaks: prolonged periods without movement restricts blood flow and increases tightness of the muscles. It is optimal to have a break and move around every 20 mins, and so setting an alarm on your phone can remind you to do this
  • When sleeping, keep your head supported so that your neck is aligned with the rest of your body

There are also things you can do  to help manage your existing upper back and neck pain:

  • Stretching: it improves the range of motion, relieves muscle tension, improves circulation and helps prevent stiffness. Do some simple neck range of movement exercises during your breaks
  • Strengthening: it is important to strengthen your neck, shoulders and thoracic muscles to improve your posture and to prevent future pain episodes. For example, band or dumbbell shoulder resistance exercises and scapula stabilisation exercises can help strengthen your muscles
  • Relaxation techniques: stress, anxiety and depression can contribute to neck pain. Breathing techniques, meditation and yoga can reduce these symptoms;
  • Review your work station (see prevention tips)
  • Heat and Cold: you can apply cold or heat packs depending on the severity of your pain, making sure you wrap the pack in a towel and don’t apply it directly to your skin
  • Medication: You can take over the counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol as pain relief for upper back and neck pain. Ask your pharmacist for advice.
  • Speak to a physiotherapist: your physiotherapist will be able to advise you on your upper back and neck pain and will give you a tailored program of exercises that will help to relieve your pain