Why does my neck hurt when sitting at the computer?
These days, just about everyone spends some time at the computer each day. Along with all that time in front of the computer we might experience the seemingly ubiquitous tension on the back of the neck and shoulders. One culprit which can contribute to that tension and neck pain is the upper portion of the trapezius muscle (Amin et al., 2018; Ghaderi et al., 2019; Kelson et al., 2019).
Where is the upper trapezius?
Remember that the trapezius can, in a way, be considered to be three different muscles because it has three main sections which each have fibers running in a different direction from the other sections. It’s the upper trapezius that we are most interested in here. The upper trapezius attaches from the nuchal ligament, base of the occiput, and spinous processes of vertebrae C1-C7 to the lateral third of the clavicle and the acromion process.
What does the upper trapezius do?
The upper trapezius can upwardly rotate and elevate the scapula. While the attachments at the nuchal ligament, occiput and cervical vertebrae are usually considered the origin, remember that muscle origin and insertion are simply a convenient way to organize what we know about a muscle’s attachments. Muscles can create movement in either direction depending on the circumstances. If we keep in mind the attachments of the upper trapezius, then we could imagine that it could also contribute to extension of the head and neck.
How is the upper trapezius involved in our posture at the computer?
Let’s think for a moment about what movements the upper trapezius is contributing to when we sit at a computer. In this case, it’s the extension of the head and neck that the upper trapezius contributes to which is particularly relevant. When we sit at a computer, the upper trapezius is one muscle which can contribute to shortening the back of the neck and shortening the distance between the head and the scapulae. In the case of sitting at a computer, we typically take our head forward and the upper trapezius has to resist that position by pulling the head back and shortening. Essentially, it’s regularly stabilizing the head and neck in a forward head position.
Researchers have found that the upper trapezius is highly active when holding our shoulders, head, and neck in a posture typical of sitting at the computer (Bodin et al., 2019). The activity level of the upper trapezius when sitting at a computer was even higher than when using a smartphone (Bodin et al., 2019). EMG studies also show that it is active when flexing and abducting the arm (Travel and Simons, 1993) as we might be doing when using a mouse at the computer.
The chronic shortening and over-use of the upper trapezius in this way can potentially contribute to neck pain (Amin et al., 2018; Ghaderi et al., 2019; Kelson et al., 2019) and trigger points (Travel and Simons, 1993). In fact, Travel and Simons, 1993, note that the trapezius is the most common muscle in the body to present with active trigger points, which can refer pain to the neck and even the jaw.
What to do with that upper trapezius at the computer?
One research team found that eccentric exercises for the upper trapezius reduced neck pain (Heredia-Rizo et al., 2019), however, the most common recommendation from those who specialize in ergonomics and workplace health is simply to get up and move. Get up from the computer and change your posture frequently, at least every hour (Keown et al., 2018) and even as much as every 20 minutes (Amin et al., 2018). If you spend regular time in front of the computer, do your trapezius a favor — get up frequently, move around, and stretch to reduce neck pain.
Amin, I., A. Arshad, A. Rabia. 2018. An observational research to assess the onset of neck pain among various computer users working for various time durations on different types of computers. Indo American Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 5(12):13956-13961.
Ghaderi, F., K. Javanshir, M. Asghari Jafarabadi, A. Nodehi Moghadam, and A. Masoud Arab. 2019. Chronic neck pain and muscle activation characteristics of the shoulder complex. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 23:913-917.
Heredia-Rizo, A.M., Petersen, K.K., Pascal, M., Arendt-Nielsen, L. 2019. Clinical outcomes and central pain mechanisms are improved after upper trapezius eccentric training in female computer users with chronic neck/shoulder pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain. 35(1):65-76.
Kelson, D.M., S.E. Mathiassen, D. Srinivasan. 2019. Trapezius muscle activity variation during computer work performed by individuals with and without neck-shoulder pain. Applied Ergonomics. 81:102908.
Keown, G.A., M. Chiro, and P.A. Tuchin. 2019. Workplace factors associated with neck pain experienced by computer users: A systematic review. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 41(6):508-529.
Travell, J.G. and D.G. Simons. 1993. Trapezius Muscle. In Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction —The Trigger Point Manual. Volume 1.