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Work-Related Neck Pain: Easy Come, Easy Go?

Pain caused by neck injuries and tension is extremely common in the workforce and can range from mild to severe. While the worst neck dysfunctions may not inhibit a person from doing work, even the most minor condition can keep a person from working efficiently. This information is nothing new; ergonomics are widely understood today because of work-related stress and strain in the entire body. What is different about the neck, however, is that almost every single existing occupation stresses the neck, and ergonomic solutions are especially effective in relieving neck-related pain.

The neck is especially vulnerable to injury and stress because no matter what a person does, he or she is very likely compromising its neutral position. To make matters worse, moving or even holding the head often requires the help of nearby muscles in the shoulders. Pain in the neck alone can affect the head, neck or shoulders; by recruiting other muscles to complete a movement, pain can be spread wider and its source may become very difficult to pinpoint. A knot or tense spot in any muscle can cause so much pain that it overwhelms the spinal cord, which in turn causes the pain sensation to be felt distant to the actual problem. These occurrences are known as trigger points. A perfect example of a nasty trigger point is one found in the scalene muscles. These muscles flex the neck from ear to shoulder. If a trigger point develops here, it can cause pain in the neck, back or top of the shoulder, front of the chest, or even down the arm. Neck tension can mimic several other conditions, like carpal tunnel syndrome, thereby making it very difficult to treat.

Research on forces applied to the body indicate that several positions and movements can lead to neck conditions, and very few jobs (if any) require none of these movements. The three main forces are: repetitive movements, forceful or heavy workloads, and static postures. Repetitive movement can be as simple as that which a grocery store clerk performs daily. Consistently turning the neck in any position is considered repetitive. Forceful or heavy workloads are more commonly applied to the shoulder, like carrying something heavy on or from the shoulder, but place additional strain on the neck to balance the weight. Static postures are simply when the neck is held out of neutral for an extended period of time. This is extremely common in an occupation like dental assisting. However, even a mechanic who is inclined to hold his head to one side as he concentrates or works is putting his neck in a static posture for most of the day.

Of all the research conducted on work-related musculoskeletal disorders, while the neck is the most vulnerable, it also is the most receptive to ergonomic intervention. In some cases, the pain caused by forces to the neck was alleviated almost immediately after the change was made. These changes include adjusting heights of monitors and keyboards, incorporating lifting aids or other manual handling aids, and simply varying work tasks to avoid overkill in a movement or position. The body is made to recover from these movements; after all, the neck works all day to hold the head up, and with proper rest, continues to do so every day without problems. Relief just needs to be incorporated into the workday as well in order to allow the body to recover and prevent injury. By addressing pain in or because of the neck early, one can not only stay productive and efficient on the job, but also spare himself of chronic pain and costly treatments later.

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