Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Neck Pain, Trapezius Hypertrophy, and Ergonomic Adventures

Today, I wanted to share a little tidbit of what I have been learning in physical therapy. Between surviving the rigors of late-night paper-writing back in college, attempting to exercise in various ways (like African Dance), and getting in a car accident on the freeway a couple years ago, I have had all sorts of neck pain for the last several years. Thankfully, I finally got my butt to a doctor a few weeks ago, in large part due to the encouragement of my wonderful and persistent friends and husband. (Seriously, after a lovely lunch date, one of my concerned friends suggested she not leave my house until I had called the doctor in front of her. And it worked!) Now, I am working on the getting better part!

One of the most interesting things I have learned is that my upper trapezius muscles are hypertrophied. In normal-person speak, this means that those big muscles that connect my shoulders to my neck - the ones I use to shrug - are being over-worked and over-firmed. Hence the reason my neck feels like a rock all the time. I find this cool, because it means I have at least one strong muscle in my body! Win! (Unfortunately for me, I actually need to make this muscle smaller.) As it turns out, some of the hypertrophy may be due to injury, but working on a computer all day can contribute to the problem significantly and/or prevent it from healing. And according to my physical therapist, this is a common occurrence for those of us with desk jobs.
Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Musculi_coli_base.svg

So what does the computer have to do with a person's neck muscles? As it turns out, the positioning of each item in your workstation setup can make a major difference!

For example, when the keyboard or mouse is too high, you will have a tendency to raise your shoulders in order to use them. The keyboard and mouse should be at a level that allows your arms to stay down and your elbows to bend at approximately a ninety-degree angle. This is typically accomplished with the use of a keyboard tray; having the keyboard or mouse up on your desk surface is generally not recommended. 

Image source: http://www.ergostoreonline.com/how-to-
Additionally, if the computer screen is too low (as often is the case with a laptop placed on a desk surface), you may strain your muscles looking down all day. If the screen is too high, you may cantilever your neck out as you look up to read. My physical therapist recommends having the top of the computer screen at eye-brow level, so that you are looking straight to read the top line of text or very slightly down to read the rest of the screen. Most monitors can be adjusted to fit the right height, or if a laptop is your only option, consider getting a stand to raise it to the right eye level.

Similarly, if the arm rests of your chair are too high, they can force your neck muscles into that upward shrugging position, or if they are too low, you may have a tendency to lean against one arm (again resulting in a shrugging neck position on one side, which uses those trapezius muscles). Next thing you know, you will end up in hypertrophied trapezius land with me!

If you have neck or back pain, you should of course consult your doctor. He or she may recommend various tests, exercises, therapies, or medications to meet your specific needs. However, I can guarantee that if you work with computers with any regularity, your doctor will also tell you to fix your setup as part of the healing process. At the very least, there is no harm to be done in making sure your work station is ergonomic. Your employer may have ergonomic consultants already available to assist you, or you can read more about what makes a workstation ergonomic online!

Image source: http://coachvilaca.blogspot.com/
And remember to be conscious of keeping those upper trapezius muscles down and relaxed! Even the best setup will not necessarily help if you continue to lean forward in your chair, place your elbows on your desk, hunch your back, or keep up all of those other pesky sitting habits that I am working so hard to kick!

I hope to have good news about my neck pain after correcting my computer setup and working hard on my other back/core muscles in physical therapy for the next few weeks. I am thankful that I am getting back on the right track with my new ergonomic positioning. Best of luck to all in your own ergonomic adventures, and feel free to share any tips you have learned!


  1. As a working lady its very help ful for me to save me for the neck pain .....becoz i also sitted in front of coputer whole day....

  2. I must agree with you, Kristen. Proper coordination of the body at work has something to do with the movement of your muscle. If you stiffen yourself in front of the computer screen without doing any, you would probably stay there for a while dealing with the pain. Try moving or swaying every other minute to relax your tissues. You shouldn't also wear headphones with your eyeglasses on as it would create a pressure on the back of your head.


  3. Unfortunately, proper positioning when in a prolonged sitting position is rarely followed, especially in offices and business centers where you just sit in front of the screen the whole day. While it may be comfortable to slouch after a while, it can be bad for your back in the long run, as it may even lead to scoliosis and kyphosis (hunchbacked).

    Jeanne @ Elmore Oil

  4. Hi.... Good to see your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving tips to the people about how to stay safe from computer neck pain. Hope people will get some idea after reading this blog.