Diagnosing Neck Pain- What Is Upper Cross Syndrome?

Upper Cross Syndrome (UCS) is defined as a phenomenon that occurs as a result of muscle imbalance between your neck and shoulder muscles. UCS is the result of weak deep neck flexor muscles and mid back muscles as well as tight upper trap muscles and tight chest muscles. UCS often results in a rounded shoulder and forward head posture. UCS is fixed by strengthening the weak musculature and lengthening or stretching the tight musculature. Specifically, stretching out the pectorals, upper traps, and levator scapula muscles while also strengthening the deep neck flexors, lower traps, and serratus anterior muscles. Tools such as foam rollers and manual stretching may aid in lengthening the necessary musculature, while exercises such as chin tucks, serratus punches, and prone Ys may assist in strengthening the necessary muscles.

A pectoralis stretch on a foam roller to improve flexibility of a patient presenting with upper cross syndrome.

The Upper Trapezius and its Role in Neck Pain

If you find yourself suffering from neck and shoulder pain, it may be coming from one muscle in particular: the upper trapezius. The upper trapezius makes up one of three parts of the large trapezius muscle in the upper back and neck and runs from the base of the head to the clavicle. The upper trap works with the middle and lower trap to stabilize the scapula and assists in upward rotation of the scapula and shrugging of the shoulder.

Increased stress, poor posture, and weakness in the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers can contribute to overcompensation from the upper traps. This can lead to increased tightness, neck/shoulder pain, and trigger point formation in the muscle. If pain and muscle tightness persists, it can affect daily activities such as sleeping, sitting, reaching, head turning and can also contribute to headaches.

If you suffer from this, here are some quick tips to help relieve pain:

1. Stretch the upper trap by placing one arm behind your back on the same side as your neck pain. Then, gently pull your ear to your shoulder with your other hand until a stretch is felt. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 3 times and perform throughout the day as needed.

2. Work on your posture. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down towards each other and hold for 5-10 seconds while keeping your head in an upward position. Repeat multiple times throughout the day.

If your pain persists, the physical therapists at Harbor Physical Therapy can help by using a combination of manual therapy, strengthening and stretching exercises to decrease muscular tension and pain.

Written by:
Dr. David Reymann
Staff Physical Therapist
Harbor Physical Therapy

Tips to Decrease Neck Pain with Computer Usage

1. Make sure your computer screen is at eye level so you do not have to look up or down for a long period of time.

2. Be at a comfortable distance from your computer so you can see the screen clearly. If not, you will flex your neck forward causing strain to the area.

3. Place your mouse in front of your dominant arm at a position where your elbow and shoulder are at rest. Avoid placing your computer on a table that is too high, this will elevate your shoulder causing strain to the area.

If you continue to have neck discomfort, contact Harbor Physical Therapy for an evaluation of your sitting posture and treatment.

Can stress lead to pain?

Are you wondering if your back or neck pain can be related to stress? Many times stress alone can cause pain and if your spinal nerves are already irritated due to a previous injury, degenerative changes or scar tissue, it may only take a little extra muscle tension to increase your pain.

Stress creates muscle tension. This can cause compression to the nerves that run through your muscles. The compression of the nerves can result in symptoms such as aching, numbness, tingling, and sharp pains. Muscle tension reduces blood flow through the tissues robbing them of nutrients and oxygen. Sciatica is one of the most common problems that can be worsened with stress.

Try to manage your stress with techniques such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, massage therapy, walking or warm baths. Also, see your physical therapist as soon as your symptoms worsen. Physical Therapy will provide you with exercises and manual techniques to reduce muscle tension.

Auto Accident Injury, Do I see a Physical Therapist or a Chiropractor

After an auto accident, it is common to sustain an acute injury to your muscles. An acute injury has a rapid onset and involves an inflammatory process of the soft tissues. Soft tissue injuries consist of the muscles, fascia, and tendons. A neck and back injury is the most common injury sustained from an auto accident.

For an acute injury, it is best to visit your local physical therapist because therapists are trained to rehabilitate injured muscle in a conservative manner. After an auto accident, physical therapy focuses on decreasing muscle tightness and inflammation, which is ultimately causing pain and decreasing function.

If you have tried physical therapy for approximately 6 weeks and have not seen any results, it is recommended you contact your physician. Your physician might at that point suggest seeking chiropractic care and or imaging tests. After an auto accident, most people receive positive results with approximately 6 weeks of physical therapy.

Sitting Posture at the Computer

How to Maintain Good Sitting Posture at the Computer

We spend a lot of time sitting in front of the computer. Sitting at the computer improperly can lead to injuries at the neck, back, wrist and elbow.  Below are guidelines to help maintain good posture while sitting in front of your computer.

  • To support the low back while sitting, make sure to sit with your back touching the back of the chair and use a lumbar support.  The lumbar support should fill the space in the curve of the low back to avoid pressure on your spine and reduce muscle fatigue in the low back muscles.
  • Your feet should sit comfortably, flat on the floor.  If they don’t reach the floor, use a footstool. Your hips should be slightly higher that your knees.
  • Do not twist or reach while you are using the computer and make sure your work is in front of your body.  Your wrists should be straight and avoid using a wrist rest.  A wrist rest tends to put a strain on the neck and shoulders because it elevates the height of your wrist from the table surface.  Your keyboard should be at elbow level and you want your elbows and upper arms resting close to your body.
  • The computer monitor should be an arms length distance away from you (about 20 inches). Your eyes should be in line with a point on the screen 2-3 inches below the top of the monitor.  Research suggests that having the center of the screen 17.5 degrees below eye level is optimal for neck alignment and for reducing glare.
  • Try to take breaks from sitting because being in one position for too long can stiffen muscles.  A couple of exercises you can do during the day to prevent neck stiffness includes: rolling the shoulders forward and backward, gently rotating your head, and side bending your head to stretch the neck muscles.