When Work is a Pain in the Neck

5 common causes of neck pain and simple steps to reduce it

image of a woman sitting at her desk with head in hands while looking at laptop screen

We’ve all experienced aches and pains after sitting at our computers for long periods.

You know the drill . . . you’re working on a project that’s due tomorrow. You’re focused and trying to hit your deadline. Several hours pass and you’ve been sitting in the same position. As you start to move, you notice that your neck is stiff and sore . You even have a slight headache. 

Now what?

Here are 5 common causes and practical solutions for neck pain.

Note: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. Consult your physician and physical therapist for specific treatment and advice for your condition.

1. Postural Strain

Maintaining proper posture is one of the most important factors in preventing neck pain while working. Many jobs require extended period of sitting at workstations. Unfortunately, prolonged sitting causes significant postural strain in the neck, back, and shoulders.

When you sit for long periods, the muscles around your spine and shoulder girdle become tense or guarded. These muscles fatigue and become painful as you continue to work in the same position. The surrounding muscles contract to help compensate for the fatigue in the primary stabilizing muscles. 

As this situation progresses, you may experience significant pain and muscle guarding throughout the neck and upper back region.

How-To Create Better Posture

If you must sit to work, try to limit it to 30 minutes at a time and take breaks to move around or stretch. Make sure that your chair properly supports your body. Some office chairs are highly adjustable and can accommodate a variety of body types.

Your low back should be supported to prevent slouching. When you sit in a slouched position, your shoulder blades and head fall forward. This creates a “forward head posture” that causes abnormal strain on the neck and upper back.

To prevent slouching, sit with your low back touching the lower part of the chair back. Ensure that your low back curve is supported either by the curve of the chair back or a small pillow or cushion. Your hips and knees should be bent to approximately 90 degrees with your feet flat on the floor. Your trunk should be upright with the elbows supported at a natural height on the armrests.

If possible, use a standing desk converter or an adjustable height desk. Either of these will allow you to easily change positions while working. When working in standing, your feet should be a comfortable distance apart (often shoulders width) and your trunk should remain upright. Don’t slouch or lean forward over your desk.

2. Desk Setup

Your desk is a critical component of your workstation, but it can contribute to your neck pain if it isn’t adjusted properly. If you have a standard sitting desk, the height of the work surface should allow you to type naturally on a computer keyboard. Otherwise, consider using a keyboard tray or drawer.

If the desk is too high, you’ll compensate by shrugging your shoulders slightly to elevate your forearms, wrists, and hands to the appropriate level. After a while, your neck muscles will fatigue and begin to spasm. When the neck muscles become tight, the tension often translates to the smaller suboccipital muscles at the base of your skull. This can lead to a headache that starts at the base of your skull and progresses to the front as your symptoms worsen.

If the desk is too low, you’ll be forced to flex your trunk to use the keyboard. Working with your trunk bent forward requires you to tilt your head up and extend the neck more than usual to allow you to see the computer monitor. This position is the forward head posture discussed above. Sitting this way shortens the suboccipital muscles at the base of your skull leading to muscles spasms, neck pain, and headaches.

How-To Fix Your Desk Setup

Your desk should be adjusted to the height that allows you to reach the work surface easily when your arms are at your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees. The desk should also be large enough to hold your computer, keyboard, mouse, and any supporting materials. It should be deep enough to allow the monitor to be at least 20 inches from your eyes to prevent eye strain.

3. Monitor Setup

Your computer monitor is another possible cause of neck pain when you work for long periods. If you’re using a laptop without an external monitor, you have to look down causing your posture to slip into the forward head position. Whether you use a secondary monitor or the laptop screen, it should be set at or slightly below eye level to promote a neutral spine position for your neck. Most monitors include a stock stand attached to bottom the screen, but many aren’t adjustable.

How-To Create A Better Monitor Setup

If the built-in stand is too short, prop it on a small shelf or box to get the screen to the correct height. A better solution is to use a separate monitor arm that connects to the back of the screen using a special mount. This gives you more flexibility in setting the screen height and distance from your eyes.

These rules apply whether you use a traditional sitting desk or standing desk. If you’re considering switching to a standing desk converter, some models have a monitor arm already attached. This ensures that you have the monitor properly adjusted whether you’re standing or sitting.

4. The Chair

The chair is a critical part of helping you maintain proper sitting posture while you work. It’s important to invest in a proper office chair, especially if you mainly work in a sitting position. There are thousands of models on the market, but chairs with an ergonomic design offer the most adjustment flexibility and correct postural support.

A common situation for people who work from home is to repurpose an existing household chair for their home office. Most household chairs aren’t designed for the type of sitting required to work at a desk. Dining chairs may have a back that’s too rigid and upright. Casual chairs may be too short, too soft, or have backs that don’t support the low back and encourage a slouched posture.

How-To Setup Your Office Chair

Your office chair should have a full back that extends from the seat of the chair to your shoulders or above. This gives the appropriate low back support and prevents slouching that can lead to a forward head posture. If the lumbar region of the chair doesn’t have enough built-in support, a full back allows you to use a small pillow or lumbar roll.

The arms of the chair should adjust to support the natural position of your elbows when your arms are at your sides. You should avoid having the elbows too high or too low to prevent postural strain in the neck and upper back muscles. Most office chairs have an adjustable seat height, but it’s important to make sure that the chair height fits well with your desk height. Other chair options can include adjustments for tilt, seat depth, and seat height to improve the fit of your chair and to prevent postural strain.

5. Stress

Stress is often overlooked as a source of neck pain while working, however, it can amplify the effects of the other factors. When we experience stress, our shoulders begin to elevate (or shrug slightly) as part of our fight/flight response. This position activates and fatigues the muscles in the neck and upper back leading to the muscle guarding described above.

How-To Relieve Stress

Stress management techniques can have a significant impact on reducing neck pain while working. Setting realistic due dates and breaking projects into smaller, actionable steps will help you minimize the pressure of working against the deadline. Adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice is a great way to step back from your work and manage stress.

If you tend to experience headaches associated with postural strain, you may benefit from performing stretching exercises and a positional release technique for the suboccipital muscles, the small muscles at the base of your skull. To perform the positional release technique, you’ll need a small towel roll or a couple of tennis balls in a sock.

Lie on your back in a quiet, dark room where you won’t be interrupted for 5–10 minutes. Place the towel roll or sock with tennis balls under the base of your skull allowing it to press gently against the suboccipital muscles. As you lie in this position, focus your breathing as you take slow, deep breaths for 5–10 minutes.

Putting It All Together

Neck pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions reported after prolonged sitting and computer use. It is usually caused by a combination of postural strain, desk setup, monitor setup, seating, and stress. 

The key to reducing your neck pain is to determine which of these factors are related to your symptoms. Your plan of action should ensure that your equipment is setup properly and modify your workflow as needed to prevent postural strain.