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home : columns : dr. k May 26, 2016

7/12/2014 12:24:00 PM
Keep your head up, shoulders down, when working at computer

DEAR DOCTOR K: I work at a computer all day, and as a result, I frequently have neck pain. What can I do?

DEAR READER: Did you know that for every 10 degrees forward you tilt your head, the weight of your head on your neck increases about 10 pounds? It's no wonder, then, that bending your head over a computer all day can strain muscles, ligaments, joints and other structures in your neck.

Luckily, a few simple steps can help prevent chronic neck pain. Here are some dos and don'ts recommended by physical therapist Amy Devaney of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital:

-- DO keep your neck in a neutral position. That means your head balances directly over your spine and is not leaning forward or over to one side.

-- DO keep your shoulders down and back in a relaxed position. Set an alarm every 45 minutes to "fix" your posture if you need to.

-- DO set up your workstation with your computer screen at eye level and your feet supported on the floor.

-- DO keep stress levels low. Stress promotes poor body position and muscle tension that can pull the head forward. Consider practicing yoga or tai chi to help reduce stress.

-- DO consider getting a desk chair with a headrest, like in your car. I have such a chair, and I'm writing this column with my head resting against the headrest.

-- DON'T roll your head round and round your neck, as some people do to loosen their neck muscles. This can grind your bones together. Instead, gently stretch your neck from side to side: Slowly look left and hold for 10 seconds, then slowly look right and hold for 10 seconds. Or gently stretch up and down: Slowly bend your neck back and hold for 10 seconds. Then slowly put your chin close to your chest and hold for 10 seconds. (I've put an illustration of this stretch on my website,

-- DON'T hold your head in a bent position for more than 10 minutes, whether you're reading, watching TV, or looking at a smartphone or computer. Change position so your eyes are looking straight ahead.

-- DON'T talk on the phone while leaning your head to one side. Use a headset or Bluetooth device.

-- DO see a doctor if your neck pain lasts more than two weeks.

It's somewhat more expensive, but I found that getting a separate flat-screen monitor (much larger than the screen on my laptop) and a separate keyboard made an enormous difference. Instead of scrunching over to squint at a relatively small screen (and typing on a relatively small keyboard), I could sit with my spine vertical and my head in line with my spine. And I could rest my head on my chair's headrest. I am now much less fatigued at the end of a workday.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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