Troubled by a sore back lately? Or perhaps you’ve been suffering with neck or knee pain? You’re not alone — research suggests that inactivity and working from home during the pandemic have exacerbated our aches and pains.
Bupa UK research estimates 11 million people in the UK have had an increase in pains such as back or neck aches in the last year.
Fortunately most of the minor day-to-day aches and pains we experience are not caused by an injury or more serious conditions such as a slipped disc or arthritis but are triggered by muscles working incorrectly or being too weak for the pressure we put them under.
Everyday movements such as sitting or standing require a lot of muscles to work — and normally they do this painlessly, explains Jayden Arnold, a physiotherapist at Ten Health and Fitness in London.
‘But if muscles are put under stress for longer than they should be, or if large muscles are weak so the wrong muscles take over, they can’t cope and start to send pain signals to the brain, encouraging us to move.’
Ignoring these signals can lead over time to ‘chronic pain in the area that is taking the load’, he adds.
Bupa UK research estimates 11 million people in the UK have had an increase in pains such as back or neck aches in the last year (stock image)
The good news is that many of the aches and pains produced by what physiotherapists call ‘time under tension’ can be alleviated by ensuring you don’t sit in the same position for more than 45 minutes, and by moving regularly throughout the day so muscles aren’t held in one position for too long.
Experts say there are also some specific techniques and tweaks you can use to help, according to where your aches and pains are — Good Health asked a selection of specialists for their top tips for you to try at home.
But before you start, do a pain audit, says Nell Mead, a physiotherapist based in London. ‘If your pain is severe, interfering with your daily activities, or comes with other symptoms such as tingling or changes in bowel or bladder habits, consult your GP before embarking on home treatment.
‘Pain tweaks should work quite quickly. If you don’t notice any improvement after a week, or pain gets worse, then seek medical advice.’
Why aches occur:
The head weighs 5 kg (12 lb) and is balanced on the seven vertebrae of the neck.
‘If you slouch, for instance when you’re slumping forwards over your computer screen, the weight of the head moves and you compensate by poking your chin forward, compressing the space between the neck and the skull,’ explains Nell Mead.
Indeed, a 2018 study by San Francisco State University in the U.S., published in the journal Biofeedback, found the weight of the head increases to the equivalent of hanging a 45 lb weight from your neck if you slump over a computer, and just 30 seconds of ‘neck scrunching’ could trigger pain in 98 per cent of people.
‘The change to the head’s centre of gravity makes the muscles attaching the back of your neck to your upper back work harder — as they get tired, this causes neck pain,’ adds Nell Mead.
As well as neck pain it can lead to headaches due to reduced blood flow and muscle tension.
Have your photo taken. If your neck pain worsens at night, your mattress could be to blame, according to sleep coach Nick Littlehales (stock image)
What you can do:Check your posture — the researchers involved in the 2018 U.S. study suggested making sure your head is aligned on top of your neck. ‘Get into the right position by imagining a piece of string pulling the crown of your head to the sky,’ advises Nell Mead. Increase your screen font size. You need to be able to see the screen easily while sitting in your chair with your head in this balanced state.
‘If the font is too small, you’ll move your face closer to the screen, creating that tension on the neck muscles,’ says Nell Mead.
Use a computer stand or balance the monitor on a box to ensure your screen is the right height: you should stare directly at the middle of the screen.Check your bra. Bigger cup sizes need a wider shoulder strap to support the weight of the breast tissue. ‘Thin straps can press into the shoulders, which manifests as pain in the neck,’ says Nell Mead.
The problem, known as costo- clavicular syndrome, occurs when the straps squash the clavicle (your collar bone) closer to the first rib. The resultant pressure on nerves leads to neck and shoulder pain.
‘But you also need a tight back band to spread support — this can become too loose if your bra is older, prompting the head and back to curve forward, leading to neck, shoulder and upper back pain,’ warns Nell Mead.
Breathe more deeply. Changing how people breathed helped reduce chronic neck pain after just three weeks of training, according to a study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand in 2014 (stock image)
Strap size is particularly important during exercise. A 2015 study from the University of Wollongong in Australia, published in the journal Sports Medicine Open, found that women over a D cup needed a sports bra with straps at least 4.5 cm wide to reduce the risk of pain.Breathe more deeply. Changing how people breathed helped reduce chronic neck pain after just three weeks of training, according to a study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand in 2014.
Nell Mead suggests: ‘Watch in the mirror. Do your shoulders lift up when you inhale? If so, you’re using your neck muscles when you breathe increasing how fast they fatigue. Breathe from your diaphragm instead.
‘Place your hand on your belly and try to draw in air deep into the lungs. Your belly should expand when you inhale and drop back as you exhale and your shoulders should barely move at all.’Rest your tongue behind your front teeth. Many people unconsciously tense their jaw muscles when concentrating.
‘Jaw clenching and tooth grinding can lead to head and neck pain,’ says Nell Mead. ‘Try to adopt a resting mouth position where your lips are closed, your teeth are slightly parted and your tongue rests behind your top front teeth. This automatically relaxes the muscles of the jaw and neck, reducing tension that leads to pain.’Have your photo taken. If your neck pain worsens at night, your mattress could be to blame, according to sleep coach Nick Littlehales.
If it’s too firm, your head will drop when you sleep whereas your hips will sink in if it’s too soft, forcing your head and neck upwards. He suggests getting someone to photograph you lying on your side on your mattress to check your spine is straight from base to head. If it’s not, use pillows or mattress toppers to realign your position. You should only need one pillow on a