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Go Ask Mom

Duke Medicine: Relieve neck pain with yoga

Posted December 27, 2010

Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist with Duke Integrative Medicine, was an editor and reporter for the Washington Post back when the transition was made from typewriters to desktop computers.

“When they converted to computers, there was little or no ergonomic sensibility,” she recalls. Long periods of sitting with poor posture, aggravated by the tension of constant deadlines, led to chronic neck pain and occasional headaches.

Regular yoga practice made a dramatic impact on Krucoff’s pain -- and inspired her to write about health and wellness issues and eventually train in yoga teaching and therapy. Her recent book, "Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain," describes the physical and emotional mechanisms behind a common -- and sometimes disabling -- problem.

Here, Krucoff offers helpful guidelines for alleviating pain and improving alignment:

How Forward Holds Us Back

Ideally, the head should be balanced on top of the spine, but our everyday activities tend to drive it forward. “Almost every task we do, working on the computer, driving, picking up our children, cooking, rounds us forward,”says Krucoff.

That awkward head posture, where the head protrudes in front of the shoulders, creates a great deal of tension in the neck and shoulders. “The average head weighs about 10 pounds -- imagine a bowling ball perched forward on your neck for hours. The neck muscles must stay engaged to keep you from falling on your face.”

Add to that precarious posture the physical effects of stress and tension. “We tighten in response to stress; when we’re frightened, a typical startle reaction is that our shoulders jump up to our ears. Many of us live in a chronic tension state, and this physical reaction becomes habitual -- no wonder so many people are walking around in pain.”

Tweak Your Settings

Modest adaptations to the spaces we inhabit most can help reduce harmful postures. Krucoff uses an editor’s desk, which angles her paperwork upward for optimal viewing, resulting in less craning forward on her part.

“Look for ways to make your environment support what you’re doing,” says Krucoff. “I worked with a chemist who was using a microscope that she really had to contort her body to use. After a couple of years, she had terrible back and shoulder pain.” Part of the solution? A step stool. “It was simple, but it made a big difference.”

Bad Breath?

Deep, full breathing can enhance posture and promote relaxation -- and it doesn’t always come naturally. “Perhaps the single most important thing I do is help people relearn how to breathe properly,” says Krucoff.

“Infants are masters -- watch a baby breathing, and you’ll see the belly rise and fall with the breath. But many people forget this with age and become shallow chest breathers, sucking in their stomachs."

"Singers and musicians who play wind instruments are among the few who recognize that a full deep breath goes into the deepest portion of the lungs, so that the belly rounds and the rib cage expands. It also really brings you into the present moment.”

For more on some simple steps to heighten awareness of how tension is affecting the body, especially the neck and shoulders, read the full article on DukeHealth.org.

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