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Pain in the Neck (and Back, and Shoulders)

Pain in the Neck (and Back, and Shoulders)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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For some, it's chronic. For others, it's acute. It can happen after car accident, a fall or a sports-related injury. It can come out of nowhere. Whatever the case, it's miserable. We're talking about back, neck and shoulder pain. If you've never experienced it, count yourself among the lucky few.

"It is hard to avoid," says Kim Cohee, a physical therapist and manager of the University of Utah Orthopedic Center's physical therapy clinic in Salt Lake City. "Most people will experience [back, neck or shoulder pain] at some point in their lives."

##### About the Author

Freelance writer Dawn Weinberger lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, Carl, and her cat, Lucy Liu. She covers health, fashion, pets and green living for several local and national publications.

Why? According to Cohee, it is often the result of just living and adapting the body to its own bad habits--rather than working to create good habits. Some people have poor posture; others spend too much time slumped in front of a computer screen. Inactivity can also have an impact (think slouching couch potatoes), as can engaging in active pursuits without proper form. You know, like overusing the shoulders while gardening, or failing to properly adjust the seat on your bicycle. And, of course, there is pain related to specific injuries, such as whiplash, a fall down the stairs or a tumble while rock climbing. The fact that it's practically inevitable, however, doesn't mean you can't take control of the pain. You basically have two choices.

1. Suffer through it. Cohee considers this option "a big mistake." The reason is pretty obvious--if you don't address the pain early on, it could get worse--and worse and worse and worse. Before you know it, you're on pain meds and considering a visit to the nearest surgeon. Why risk it, especially if there's a chance to avoid further problems in the first place?

2. Learn a few prevention techniques, and find ways to ease the discomfort from the outset. This choice definitely has our vote, so we talked to Cohee about some tried-and-true approaches that physical therapists use when treating patients with back, neck and shoulder pain.

If you didn't know otherwise, a biofeedback session might look more like a scene from "Star Trek" than a pain-relief method. It works like this: The patient sits in a chair or relaxes on some other comfy surface while the physical therapist places electrodes on the skin, atop key muscles. The therapist connects the electrodes to a biofeedback machine, and then instructs the patient on how to move. In some cases, the patient might be told to sit completely still. Others may be asked to turn their head or lift an arm. As the patient contracts the muscles, the electrodes send signals back to the machine. In turn, the machine beeps or light up. This helps the patient and the therapist identify which movements cause pain, allowing the patient to avoid the painful movements in the future and, most importantly, strengthen the muscles in question. "It's a tool for muscle re-education," says Cohee.

Wait, stretching? Isn't that something that you do after a run or when your muscles feel tight first thing in the morning? Well, yes. But stretching improves your muscle mobility, which can go a long way toward avoiding, reducing and even eliminating back, neck and shoulder pain. That's because the pain might actually be the result of inhibited flexibility, rather than a specific injury, Cohee says. She uses the example of a person who spends a lot of time working in front of a computer. Often, while you're sitting in your chair, the muscles in your back elongate. The pectoral muscles, on the other hand, contract. This causes a muscle imbalance that "throws your normal biomechanics out of whack." The result: pain.

A good stretching regimen can help reduce said pain by reestablishing balance in the body. However, proceed with caution--while there are a lot of excellent stretching programs in books, magazines and even hanging on the wall at your health club, one size does not fit all. DIY stretching might be OK for those who aren't in pain, but if you are in pain, a random program could make it worse.

"You [might] end up stretching something that is already flexible," Cohee warns, adding that a physical therapist can asses your range of motion and make sure you work on the muscles that really need the work.

Core Strength Is Not Just for Six-Pack Abs
Ahh, core strength. The fitness phrase that's all the rage. While most people associate core strength with really tight abs, that's only one benefit to strengthening what some call your body's powerhouse: the rectus abdominis, the transversus abdominis, the internal and external obliques and the muscles in your back.

A strong core, she says, provides stabilization to the entire body. And when your body is stable, you're less likely to strain muscles when engaging in day-to-day activities. Strong limbs combined with a weak core provide the opposite effect. She likens it to a piece-of-junk car with high-end tires. The tires provide stabilization for a while, but at some point they're going to wear down. If the car is in good condition, however, the tires are less likely to wear out prematurely.

But don't fool yourself into thinking that dropping and doing a few crunches every other day is going to strengthen your core. A balanced, comprehensive core-strengthening program takes time and effort, Cohee says. And, just like the flexibility approach mentioned above, the first step is identifying which muscles need the most work.

Of course, when you're in pain, it's hard to want to move the areas that hurt. That's why it's important to talk to your doctor and work with your physical therapist to find a solution that works for you.

Reprinted with permission from

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