Neck Pain? These 5 Things Might Be the Problem

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman works on laptop while on couch
© Carolyn Lagattuta / Stocksy United

So you slept in a funny position or spent the day hunched over your laptop — and now you can’t turn your head without aches or pain.  

“Neck pain is common in day-to-day life. Upwards of 85% of people experience neck pain or back pain in their lifetime,” says Dr. Viral Patel, an orthopedic spine surgeon who sees patients at the Spine Center at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt.  

That kink-in-your-neck feeling can be caused by a muscle spasm or because your neck was in an awkward position — a roughly 30-40% flexion angle (a forward bend in your neck) from a neutral posture, Patel says. Keeping your neck flexed puts pressure on the discs in your spine, which can cause soreness in the soft tissues in your neck. 

While this pain isn’t serious — and it should subside in a day or two — not being able to freely move your neck without pain can be frustrating and, well, painful.  

The good news is you don’t need to acquire ballerina-level posture to avoid soreness. The first step to preventing neck pain? Understanding what causes it.  

Your work setup  

If you wake feeling limber but your neck is stiff and painful by the end of the day, it might be time to look at your workplace ergonomics. 

Work often entails long hours spent in one position, be it curled up with your keyboard or, in Patel’s case, looking down during surgery. In either scenario, spending extended time with your neck at an odd angle can stress your muscles and lead to pain. 

“You want to find the right tools to keep your neck in a neutral position without interfering with your work,” Patel says.  

Prevent pain by: creating an ergonomic work setup where you can look at your computer while keeping your neck in a neutral position (center your head over your neck and shoulders). Use a standing desk so that your laptop is directly in front of you and take breaks throughout the day to move and stretch.  

Your texting habits 

It likely won’t come as a shock that we spend a lot of time on our phones every day. While studies vary on the exact number, the average smartphone user spends about four to six hours per day using their device.  

And all those hours add up to a painful new problem: text neck. 

The adult human head weighs about 10 to 12 pounds, and when you tilt your head forward, the force exerted on your cervical spine, or the bones in your neck, increases due to gravity. So, when you drop your head down to look at your phone, your neck is bearing more weight. 

According to a 2014 study, at 15 degrees, the force on your cervical spine is about 27 pounds, while a 60-degree tilt (considered the typical angle for texting) can increase the force on your spine to 60 pounds.  
In short, those texts and TikToks are taking a toll.  

Prevent pain by: adjusting how you text so that you raise the phone slightly and look down with your eyes instead of bending your neck. Take breaks from your phone to look around and move your head to help prevent prolonged stress on your neck (yet another reason to curb that doomscrolling habit).  

Your pillow 

When it comes to choosing pillows to support neck health, less is more. This is because the more pillows you sleep on (or the taller the pillow), the greater the angle of your neck.  

Side sleepers should seek out a pillow that’s about the height of their shoulder, so their neck is straight and relaxed when they lay down. Those who sleep on their back should look for thinner pillows that won’t cause their neck to jut forward.  

“Whichever pillow you use, the most important thing is to keep your neck in a neutral position,” Patel says. 

Prevent pain by: limiting yourself to one pillow, which will help your neck alignment and prevent your neck from being flexed all night. Select a pillow that keeps your body in a neutral position with your ears in line with your shoulders, like a foam or contour pillow. 

Your morning swim or Zumba class 

Activities that strain your neck muscles can lead to pain, especially if you haven’t strengthened those muscles (or alternatively if you overuse them).  

Golfing, swimming, dance, gymnastics and certain yoga poses require repetitive motions or positions that can strain your neck muscles. 

If you always turn your head the same direction when swimming the front crawl, for example, you are only building muscle on one side of your neck. This imbalance can create strain and soreness. 

Prevent pain by: strengthening your neck, back and core muscles, which will help offload weight and protect your neck and spine. Try planks and bird dogs to build strength and be sure to stretch before and after your workout. 

Your stress 

Stress strikes again. Stress affects your body mentally and physically, and it creates tension in your neck and shoulder muscles. (This is why your shoulders can end up by your ears when you feel threatened, nervous or scared.) 
When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up to respond to a perceived threat. If you have chronic stress, in which a stressor is ongoing for a long period of time, your body remains in a heightened state and your muscles aren’t able to relax.  

Prevent pain by: trying to notice when your muscles are tense and consciously relaxing them. Stretch out your muscles and roll your shoulders, or try restorative yoga posesmeditation or deep breathing to help relieve stress and tension.   

When to see your doctor for neck pain 

Most cases of neck pain will go away on their own — no doctor’s visit necessary. However, there are some cases where it’s important to get a checkup.  

“Neck pain that lasts for one to two days and goes away on its own is likely benign. If it doesn’t get better in a week, you should see a physician to make sure nothing else is going on,” Patel says.  

You also want to pay attention to any additional symptoms you experience, such as fever, chills and weakness or numbness in your legs or hands, as these can be signs that you are experiencing something more serious.   

On the flipside, if you know the pain stems from your workday or how you slept, don’t stress it.  

Take an over-the-counter pain medication, massage the tender area and apply a heating pad. In a day or two you’ll be back to having pain-free full range of motion.