Stiff Neck and Upper Torso
A stiff neck and stiff upper torso are painful issues that can gradually begin to interfere with your daily routine. If your symptoms persist, they may even make it difficult to sleep peacefully at night. In most cases, neck pain and shoulder girdle discomfort are temporary but can become chronic without proper management.
According to pain survey statistics, a large percentage of adults in the United States experience frequent neck pain or other problems including stiffness, as well as discomfort in their upper torso in the area around the shoulder blades. While the cause of a stiff neck and upper torso may typically be traced to a specific condition or injury, certain work routines or daily activities at home may also contribute to ongoing discomfort.
Common Causes of Neck and Upper Torso Stiffness
Neck stiffness that extends down into the shoulder blades is often due to a sprain or strain from sporting events, overexertion, or poor posture. A soft tissue injury that affects the muscles, ligaments, or tendons may also lead to discomfort. Injuries that occur in soft tissue are associated with stiffness, headaches, and muscle spasms. This is different from health problems caused by hard tissue injuries that may damage bones or cartilage. One of the most common issues linked to soft tissue damage is poor posture
Improper Posture and Sleeping Position
Holding your neck in an unnatural or awkward position for prolonged periods can lead to strained muscles or tendons in your neck and upper torso. Harmful postures and activities that may contribute to a stiff neck or shoulder tension include:
- Jerking your neck suddenly
- Abruptly turning your head or neck
- Leaning forward to look at a computer or a phone
- Sleeping on a pillow that is too high or resting on a stack of pillows
- Clenching or grinding your teeth at night while sleeping
- Being completely flat while sleeping
Poor posture that is corrected through exercise or a physical therapy program can help address a stiff neck and upper torso. An effective therapeutic regimen may also prevent future occurrences.
Whiplash refers to a forceful movement of the neck that may cause ligaments, muscles, or tendons in this region to tear. This type of injury most frequently occurs due to car accidents. Other possible causes of whiplash include:
- A hard fall
- Being shaken violently
- A collision during contact sports
- A serious blow to the head
The symptoms do not always appear right away, but commonly reported complications are headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, and extreme fatigue, as well as neck pain or stiffness and shoulder discomfort. Most people fully recover from whiplash in a few months, but others may experience chronic pain that necessitates treatment such as physical therapy.
Cervical Spondylosis (Cervical Osteoarthritis)
Cervical spondylosis, also known as cervical osteoarthritis, is a condition caused by the age-related wear and tear of spinal discs of the neck. This condition is quite common and generally affects over 85 percent of adults over the age of 60.
The spine consists of many bony segments (spinal bones) called vertebrae. The spinal disc sits between each of the vertebrae, the disc consists of an outer layer of ligaments known as the annulus and a more gelatinous inner layer of collagen known as the nucleus. Together these elements allow for movement of the spine and create space between the vertebra. As individuals get older, the discs become dehydrated as they gradually lose some of their fluid content. As the spinal discs dehydrate, they begin to stiffen and lose height, causing the vertebrae to move closer together.
Over time, the muscles in the neck will also become stiff and if the vertebrae in this region begin to rub together due to thinning discs, neck pain may develop. Chronic neck pain can also travel toward the shoulder blades. Severe cases can even lead to a pinched nerve.
Smoking is associated with damage to the blood vessels that transport nutrients to spinal discs. As a result, chronic smoking is linked to the worsening of spinal disc problems and neck pain. Furthermore, individuals who smoke frequently often experience an earlier onset of symptoms related to cervical spondylosis than people who do not smoke.
Physical therapy can be effective at reducing pain and improving daily functioning. The physcial therapy regimen usually focuses on restoring motion and improving proprioceptive, endurance, coordination, and strength through manual techniques, exercise prescription and education in proper posture and body mechanics.
Shoulder and Neck Referred Pain
There is a close connection between the nerves that innervate the neck and shoulders. This means that in some cases, perceived shoulder girdle pain may have originated in the neck due to an irritated nerve. This type of issue is called referred pain. Symptoms of neck and shoulder referred pain include:
- Pain, burning, tingling, or stiffness that radiates to the shoulder blade, elbow, or hand
- Pain that extends down the arms when you twist or turn your neck
- Pain that decreases when you support your neck (e.g., headrest)
There are several additional causes of neck stiffness and shoulder discomfort that include:
- A compressed nerve
- Disc degeneration
- Stress and muscle tension
- A spinal cord injury
- A concussion
- Chronic anxiety
To prevent a stiff neck pain and upper torso discomfort from becoming a chronic problem, it is important to address the issue promptly. This may involve the use of pain-relieving medication, lifestyle adjustments, and therapeutic exercises that can be guided by a physical therapist to help alleviate underlying problems related to neck and upper torso stiffness.
Strategies That Address Chronic Pain
A stiff neck and upper torso pain can be treated or prevented by implementing certain lifestyle changes and ergonomic strategies at home or the workplace. Pain prevention may also entail changing harmful habits such as poor posture. Furthermore, exercising regularly can help strengthen the muscles and improve the mobility in your neck and shoulders to reduce the risk of injury or strain.
Regular exercise promotes mobility in the joints, and stretches and strengthens ligaments and muscles in the neck as well as the upper body to help alleviate chronic neck stiffness or shoulder discomfort. Specific techniques such as the downward dog, chin tuck, or bow pose target muscle imbalances by counteracting the forward (downward) head position. Exercises such as these gently pull your shoulders back down and increase mobility in your neck to restore motion and improve your posture. Exercising consistently also reduces the risk of future neck or shoulder problems.
In addition to strengthening muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones in your neck and shoulders, exercise affords numerous benefits that include:
- Enhanced mental health
- Heightened cognitive performance
- A boost in immune system function
- Improved sleep quality and duration
- Reduced stress, irritability, and tension
- Increased quality of life and longevity
It is important to remember that exercising does not always have to entail vigorous activities such as weightlifting or high-intensity cycling. Going for a walk, a brisk run, or even playing with your dog for 15 minutes or more are ideal ways to add physical activity to your daily routine.
Incorporate Ergonomics Into Your Home or Workplace
Ergonomics involves making adaptations to a home, workplace, or even vehicle to accommodate a chronic condition or disability. The incorporation of ergonomics supports good posture, lessens body strain, and helps people perform better. Most importantly, ergonomics offers several management solutions and options for a stiff neck that affects the upper torso.
For instance, requesting or purchasing a high-quality ergonomic office chair that is adjustable helps ensure proper body posture while you’re sitting. An ergonomic chair can be used at home as well. Although this type of chair encourages ideal posture, remember that your back needs to be pressed firmly against the back of the chair in an upright – not slouched – position. Furthermore, your arms need to be relaxed and at the same level as the desk. In addition, keeping the feet planted flat on the floor with the knees positioned slightly lower than the hips also helps the body remain in a comfortable position that reduces the risk of neck pain.
Another important factor to consider is the position of your computer, laptop, or TV screen. More specifically, if a laptop is not at eye level, you may unintentionally bend your head or neck forward. If you crane your neck forward for an extended period of time, it can gradually lead to a stiff neck or pain in the upper torso, especially if you turn your head abruptly.
Using a standing or adjustable desk, if this is possible, also encourages you to alternate between a seated and standing position throughout the day. Changing your position every so often reduces the strain of sitting for long hours. If you are unable to use a standing or adjustable desk, try to stand up and stretch at least once every hour. Gently stretch or walk around for a few minutes during your break to loosen up tense neck and shoulder muscles.
An ergonomic mouse and keyboard may provide additional support as well. For instance, an ergonomic mouse positions the hand vertically, while a split keyboard prevents the wrists from twisting. These types of tools improve the posture of the hands and wrists, reduce wrist and hand pain, and decrease shoulder cramping.
People who have chronic neck pain often work with physical therapists who may recommend ergonomic solutions as part of the pain management regimen. This is an optimal way to ensure that ergonomic approaches are implemented effectively. The improper use of ergonomic equipment or devices (e.g., office chair, keyboard) can worsen poor posture that may be contributing to a stiff neck and shoulder blades.
Avoid Cigarette Smoke
If you’re a smoker, it’s time to try to quit. Cigarette smoke is harmful to the spinal discs in your neck. This is because the smoke from tobacco or cigarettes damages blood vessels that supply spinal discs with nutrients and hydration, making them more susceptible to gradual wear and tear. Spinal discs gradually dehydrate, shrink, and weaken with age, but smoking accelerates this process – often causing neck pain that may radiate toward the shoulder blades.
It is vital to speak with a professional who can help you quit smoking if this is a habit you are struggling to break. A physical therapist can even recommend exercises or stretches to relieve stress and tension that may develop as you work toward quitting. Fortunately, the physical therapy routine can simultaneously target a stiff neck and upper torso.
A stiff neck that extends to the upper torso may be linked to several factors that include an injury, strain, stress, poor posture, and certain lifestyle habits, including smoking. If a known injury causes your stiffness, it is important to limit additional movements such as heavy lifting or turning the head and neck in a manner that may further aggravate neck muscles.
A physical therapist can help determine the best approach to address neck and upper torso stiffness.
Although an injury may cause stiffness, persistent stress can also lead to tense muscles in the neck, shoulders, and back. Finding ways to reduce stress by taking frequent breaks, listening to music, going for a walk or run, or enjoying a favorite hobby, for example, can help address or prevent neck and shoulder blade stiffness. Exercising regularly can also lessen stress and tension naturally to help prevent pain in the neck and shoulders. In addition, regular exercise reduces the incidence of injury due to weak muscles.
Smoking is often a risk factor for neck and shoulder stiffness that is overlooked. However, it is particularly problematic for chronic smokers who have become nicotine dependent. Making a plan to quit smoking and executing it efficiently can dramatically reduce the occurrence of muscle stiffness in the neck or shoulder blades.
For cases where a stiff neck and upper torso discomfort becomes a limiting factor in your daily activities, it may be useful to speak with a physical therapist. The therapists at FYZICAL can conduct an assessment to determine the extent of the problem, potential limitations in range of motion, and possible causes of the discomfort. After completing a comprehensive evaluation, our team at FYZICAL can develop a plan that specifically targets your neck and shoulders.
FYZICAL offers a wide variety of physical therapy services by qualified providers across the U.S. To find a FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Center near you, visit our website at FYZICAL.com. Our highly skilled therapy providers are 100% focused on your optimal health so you can Love Your Life®!
To learn more about how FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers can help you, download our free e-book.