With flexible working patterns here to stay, we need to prioritise postural health, focusing on our necks, writes Anna Bartter.
There’s no denying that sitting at a desk all day is bad for our posture, and with lots of us still working from home, at kitchen tables or makeshift bedroom desks that haven’t been rigorously ergonomically checked, our necks are feeling the strain.
Pinterest searches for neck hump exercises rose a whopping 210% between September 2020 to September 2022, and it’s probably no coincidence that this aligns with an increase in home or flexible working patterns.
“As humans, we are designed to be upright and mobile,” explains Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and clinical director at Complete Pilates. “With many of us employed in desk jobs, we’re often seated for long periods of time which contributes to muscle weakness and stiffness leading to increased stresses and strains on the muscles. Given that the neck is responsible for holding the weight of our head, it’s no surprise that it’s susceptible to injuries and conditions that will cause pain.”
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What is a neck hump?
Even when we’re not working in front of a screen, the chances are we’re hunched over a phone, scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. But this repeated forward poking motion causes our back and neck muscles to fatigue, causing a counter strain at the base of the neck. When this happens, the spine becomes rigid and stiff in order to support the neck, and over time, this can create a visible hump.
“Essentially, we all have a natural ‘S’ bend in our spine,” explains Dr Esther Fox, director of physiotherapy at Mount Kelly Physio and founder of thepilatesdoctor.co.uk. “While there are genetic and environmental components in the formation of a neck hump, your body adapts to what you do. If you’re spending hours hunched over your desk, or on a phone or tablet, over time your shoulder blades move forward, leading to elongated and weaker back muscles.”
Is neck hump painful?
“I have patients who present with neck pain without a hump, and those with a hump and no pain,” reveals Dr Fox. “But many people are prone to neck stiffness and pain. Essentially, our muscles, joints and ligaments aren’t designed to just sit, particularly if we’re also bending over a screen. Pain and postural disorders are common, but the good news is they are treatable – there’s no such thing as bad posture, it’s sustained posture that creates issues.”
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What can we do about it?
Luckily, a fewsimple tweaks could help improve your postural health – and it doesn’t need to be onerous.
Check your desk
Dr Fox recommends an overhaul of your workspace: “I’m really strict about my desk set-up. I’d recommend a saddle chair, or standing chairs are great. An ergonomically designed desk with a large screen and separate keyboard is non-negotiable.”
Reduce screen time
If you have a sedentary, desk-based job, reducing your screen time can be easier said than done. But if you’re tied to a screen all day, try and take a break from it once you’ve logged off. That means no mindless scrolling after hours.
Take regular breaks
“I always advise setting timers to remind you to move,” advises Dr Fox, “particularly if you’re prone to getting engrossed in your work. Ideally, you should be getting up from your desk and moving around after an hour of sitting, and this can be a short break such as putting some washing on, or even walking the dog – as long as you’re getting up from your seat and moving.”
Try more low-impact exercises like pilates and yoga
Once you’re done redesigning your workspace, if you’re committed to reversing or preventing a neck hump, it’s vital to incorporate regular exercise into your routine.
“Ideally, we should be aiming to be active at least four times per week,” says Dr Fox. “Strength training is really good for improving posture, while counter-stretches such as pilates and yoga are a great antidote to sitting. But the best exercise is the exercise you’ll do, as the saying goes, so it has to be something you’ll commit to.”
Dr Fox doesn’t mince her words when it comes to the importance of an active lifestyle, saying, “many people complain they’re too busy to exercise, when the reality is that they’re simply not prioritising it. We need to work out, and work out hard, whether this is a class, or digging in the garden.”
Target the neck area
O’Leary recommends specifically focusing on the neck and back muscles. “You need to work on the muscles in the back of your body to make sure they are strong as they will hold you up against gravity. If you combine these with back mobility exercises, you’ll really notice the difference in your thoracic (mid-spine) region.”
She recommends trying the following exercises to help.
1. Prone press – lay on your tummy, hands by your chest, press your pubic bone into the floor and lift your upper back.
2. Book openings – these are great for improving mobility through the spine. Lie on your side with your knees bent and level with your hips. Inhale and float your top arm up to the ceiling and as you exhale, allow your body to follow your arm and head as you look behind. Inhale and hold, before releasing and returning to your start position.
3. Quadruped exercises – these are varied and target neck stability, try the cat/cow pose to start with.
4. Knee hovers – another great exercise for reducing back pain and improving stability.
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Short on time and can’t leave your desk? Try some shoulder rolls. Personal trainer and founder of OriGym, Luke Hughes explains, “Shoulder rolls are beginner-friendly stretches for shoulder pain. They benefit the biceps, the brachialis and the brachioradialis, all of which can have a profound effect on the shoulder muscles, relieving tightness and soreness.”
Stand up tall with your back straight and your feet shoulder width apart. Inhale, and move your shoulders up to your ears. Then, move them backwards, and downwards before exhaling. Finally, move your shoulders forwards, completing the circular motion
Repeat for 30-45 seconds, as often as you remember. And even better – you don’t need to leave your desk.
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