Addressing chronic neck pain

Throughout our lives, we are saddled with carrying around this weighty orb — about 10 to 12 pounds’ worth — in a constant balancing act while we swing it this way and that. We can’t carry it low, clutching it to our chest. No, it has to be constantly at the tiptop of our body, with only our neck to support it. Is it any wonder our head can be such a pain?

Our neck must be strong enough to support the heavy weight of our head and still allow it to tilt, turn and nod up and down easily. Without our knowing it, the way we perform these everyday activities can bring on neck pain and lead to a form of chronic pain that does not get nearly the attention it deserves.

At some point in our lives, most of us experience neck pain. It could show as stiffness or as a sudden spasm. It could cause a sharp pain down the arm or a dull ache in the head. It might come over you while at your desk or while behind the steering wheel. However you experience it, it is an event you would just as soon not repeat.

The good news is that most neck pain is pain you don’t have to endure. It is within our power to address it. How you carry yourself can either invite neck pain or help keep it at bay. We just have to do a better job of using what’s inside our heads, of reminding ourselves to take certain corrective measures to achieve healthy neck posture. For example, when working at your computer or at a desk, keep your head balanced directly over your spine as much as possible. Same thing goes for walking and hiking. No matter how perfect your office chair posture, it is important to get up and move around — every half-hour, as a rule of thumb. Prolonged sitting is linked to a worsening of neck pain as well as other health problems.


As recommended by Harvard Health, if you spend a lot of time on the phone, try to avoid leaning your head to one side. A headset, earbuds or speaker setting can help keep your head in a neutral position for hands-free talking. If you read in bed, sit up straight, use a specially designed wedge pillow or lie on your side with your neck straight and hold the material in front of you.

Chronic neck pain is often overlooked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 50 million Americans — just over 20% of the adult population — have some form of chronic pain. About 20 million Americans have what is categorized as high-impact chronic pain: pain severe enough that it frequently limits life or work activities.

What researchers are consistently finding is that stress is one of the chief culprits in bringing on chronic pain and declining health. Science remains in the formative stages of piecing together the connection between what’s happening in your head and what’s happening within your body, as well as what interventions might help change negative consequences of that connection.

We should all stand tall and strive to achieve healthy neck posture. As once was said: “It’s not the height at which you stand. It’s how you stand in your height.” Sadly, this simple act of standing up straight becomes progressively harder, especially as we age. Research also suggests that how a person feels about aging can affect the way they carry themselves. Negative feelings about aging can be shaped by many factors — among them, the way your family members and peers have aged, how old you are and what stereotypes about aging are dominant in your life.


Believing that age improves you, like a fine wine or flannel sheets, is far better for your health than believing that people inevitably decline and lose relevance as the years march on. Keeping our headspace on the sunny side has been shown to protect against dementia, even among those who are predisposed to it. A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2002 suggests that having an optimistic mindset about aging could add a full 7 1/2 years to one’s life.

In an article published in Elysium Health, Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University and a leading figure in mindfulness research, underscores the need to realize how powerful our minds are. “What happens as you get older is that you tend to over-assimilate everything negative to aging,” she warns.

Some believe aging stereotypes may be subtly shifting in a more positive direction. Let us hope so. As baby boomers continue to push into retirement and more of us to live past 100, perhaps our collective respect for the elderly and comfort with the aging process will help all of us age with more grace and better health. Improved self-image can also promote better posture.

As we carry our weighty heads onward, remember: Feed your head well and it will take care of you. What you eat isn’t just about calorie counting; it’s about keeping your brain healthy. The foods we eat, especially foods high in antioxidants, can help ward off dementia and improve brain health. Commissioned by U.S. News, a panel of nutrition experts recently ranked the MIND diet among the top five best diets overall and best diets for healthy eating. Created to help preserve brain function, the MIND diet incorporates foods such as berries, green leafy veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans and a weekly serving of fish. What it shows is that eating well and carrying yourself well will help you live a healthy life.


Write to Chuck Norris (i[email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.