The true culprit is actually a lot easier to fix.
It’s easy to say that neck and back pain is due to our slouching, hunching-over culture—too easy, says Eric Robertson, associate professor of clinical physical therapy at the University of Southern California. “Actually, if you hunch a while, that’s fine,” he says. “You can see people who have all sorts of funky postures and positions and they don’t experience pain. I think it’s convenient, when somebody does have pain, to point at their posture and say, ‘oh look, that’s why.’” Robertson also points out that there aren’t studies that show a link between pain and posture.
So why are you in such pain? It’s simple: you probably aren’t moving enough.
That’s because most pain comes from weak or stiff muscles. “Imagine if you woke up one day and you never turned your head. Well, at the end of the day you wouldn’t be very good at turning your head left or right. It would feel stiff and uncomfortable,” Robertson says. That’s what happens when we sit in a car or at a desk. It’s not the hunching or leaning forward itself—it’s that that’s all we’re doing.
The solution: Take your joints through their full range of motion every day. “All joints have a built-in range that they can go through, and they like to visit those ranges often,” he says. “Think of something like yoga that’s been around for eons. One of the things it does is take people through a very wide range of motions.”
Next time you’re starting to feel a twinge in your back or neck, give your head, shoulders, and back a good twist and turn, and you’ll stave off increasing pain. Better yet, start a regular stretching routine. The benefits of stretching are well-known; try these stretches for your lower back, hips, groin, and neck.
For pain that lingers, Robertson suggests seeing a physical therapist. “The care is individualized, so the intensity of the solution matches the intensity of the problem,” he says. “Working with providers that empower you as a partner—rather than give you passive interventions—is a really important factor in your success.”