I've been holding off on writing a post dedicated to my chronic neck pain because I wanted to have everything figured out before I did. I hoped to be able to provide recommendations to those of you who also struggle with similar issues* (especially because each time I post about it on social, an overwhelming number of people reach out and share that they're in the same place as me).
My neck pain originated in 2012 when I wrote my first book in bed, crouched over my laptop. My movement is extraordinarily limited—if I try to touch my chin to my chest, I have about five inches of clearance. I can't turn my neck to the side easily, and I find that I'm much more restricted in my movement than I should be at 37. A lot of the pain is rooted at the base of my skull, which is very tender (when I press into it I see stars), and my back and shoulders are extremely tight. I'm so used to it that I rarely talk about it, but the pain is always there.
Unfortunately, right around the time my doctor recommended physical therapy two times a week, the world shut down. I began sitting at my computer for hours a day in a non-ergonomic seat, hunched over my phone for far more hours than I would care to admit, and am in the process of transitioning from sleeping on my stomach to my back. That being said, there are some things I'm currently trying and working on, so I thought I'd share them with you here.* For those of you who have struggled similarly, I'd be so appreciative of any advice you can offer as well:
*Though it should go without saying, I am not a doctor. This is not medical advice. The recommendations in this post are simply steps and products I've tried.
Let's start with sleep! As a lifelong stomach sleeper, it's easily the worst position for my neck and back (not to mention wrinkles), since my neck needs to be craned all the way to the side for me to be able to breath properly. I've been sleeping this way for my whole life, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the transition has been a lot harder than I'd anticipated.
When I first started this journey, I decided that it would be easiest for me to first start on my side before going to my back. I bought a body pillow which reminded me a lot of the pregnancy pillow I used for Sloan. I love curling up with it—it goes between my arms and legs, a position G refers to as "koala-ing." The first couple of weeks I had it, I was using it to also prop up my neck, but I didn't realize the angle was much too high.
It was around this time that I decided to go right to my back. I have one of those pillows for a bad neck, but it's intended for back sleepers, so I'd slipped back into using a regular pillow with my full body pillow. I'm usually able to fall asleep on my back—but often wake up on my stomach. If you're a stomach sleeper, you know that it is the coziest, most comforting thing to feel your body weight against your stomach and chest. It's what lulls me back to sleep, so I've been placing my body pillow on top of me, followed by a weighted blanket (which Luna and Rocco then climb on top of for a full cat-pile). No joke, I go to bed about 15 minutes before Geoffrey just to get situated in bed. It's a whole ordeal, especially once I add my eye mask, earplugs, and turn the white noise machine on. But so far, it's helping and I notice a significant difference in my neck on days after I'm able to sleep through the night on my back.
I've been trying to stretch twice a day (which is a big improvement from once every year or so), though most of the time, it's not for that long or as many stretches as it should be. I have quite a few old sports injuries I go through life pretending I don't have, which is exactly what's gotten me to where I am...
I now keep a yoga mat by the TV since we don't have a rug there yet. It's a physical reminder when we're in the middle of a "Homeland" marathon to get down on the floor and do the stretches a physical therapist taught me years ago: I lie on my back and bring my knees in, do a hamstring stretch and touch my toes with one leg bent, then the other. I'll also gently bring my neck to one side and hold it, then the other, then get onto my hands and knees to do some "Cat-Cow" poses. It's a fairly basic routine, but of all the things I've been trying, this is what has helped the most.
One of the products G got me recently is essentially a shawl in ice pack form. It looks like something out of "Game of Thrones," since a neck injury makes it difficult to wrap a pack around your neck (trust me, I've tried), but this addresses not only my neck but my back and shoulders, which are also always tight.
We also bought an acupressure mat and pillow that I will sometimes bring out while watching TV. If you lay back on it in a light tank or sports bra it hurts a lot at first, but you get used to it rather quickly and it helps reduce pain and tension around my neck and shoulders.
Lastly, we have a Theragun that G got for recovery after 100-mile bike rides, since it helps to break up lactic acid. I've found it enormously helpful with my neck, since there are spots that G can't go hard enough on with massage alone. Plus it's something I can do on my own and it's also been helpful in understanding how many other tight areas on my body (hamstrings, hip area, back) also contribute to the pain I feel in my neck.
In the past, my idea of "pain management" was ignoring it. I'm very conservative with prescription pain medicine (ie I'm too freaked out to try it), but I've adopted other methods that help.
My neck pain generally begins in the form of a headache that starts innocuously, but gains speed quickly (I've thrown up from the pain of the headache multiple times). As soon as I begin to feel the ache, I will take two Advil with a decent amount of water, and ice my neck and back. I've never had a traditional migraine before, but from the way my friends have described theirs, the symptoms are similar. It's after two or three days that I realize how much pain and tension in my headache are originating from my neck. When it gets to that point, it takes quite a few days for me to feel back to normal—it doesn't just "bounce back," and there's no position or amount of stretching that can make it feel better.
I've gone to physical therapy in the past and one of the things my therapist told me is that it's natural for many of us—when we're sitting in our cars or at our desks, reaching for something in the fridge, or watching TV—to crane our necks and jaw forward. He taught me to do chin tucks several times an hour to correct for this. Imagine someone putting their fingers on your chin and pushing it back two inches—they're tiny corrections you can do throughout the day, in addition to practicing proper posture.
I know that chiropractors work for some people, but I've proceeded with caution ever since a bad experience. I went to a chiropractor when my neck pain first started, and he did some adjustments that caused searing pain and numbness in my hands, so my doctor and I agree it's best to avoid for now.
That's a loooot of information about someone's chronic neck pain, but for those of you who have similar issues, I hope you might not feel as alone in your journey. And for those of you who've had success in mitigating your own pain, please share your secrets—I'm all ears!
A few helpful links...
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