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Exercise more important than ergonomics in preventing neck pain

Photo: Exercise more important than ergonomics in preventing neck pain
An exercise program is likely to roughly halve the risk of a new episode of neck pain, according to a recent study by Macquarie University.

Surprisingly, the research, published in The Journal of Physiotherapy, also indicated that ergonomic programs, such as adjustment of a workstation, ergonomic redesign or modification, evaluation of participant posture, manual handling aids and job rotation, do not reduce the risk of a new episode of neck pain.

Neck pain is a common condition worldwide affecting 48.51 per cent of the adult population over a lifetime. It is also the fourth leading cause of disability, and the number of people experiencing neck pain is expected to increase considerably over time due to an ageing population2.

The study, Exercise programs may be effective in preventing a new episode of neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis, investigated two exercise-based and three ergonomic interventions.
The exercise-based interventions, including neck muscle stretching, endurance training, and general aerobic programs, were found to roughly halve the risk of a new episode of neck pain whereas the ergonomic programs did not significantly reduce risk.

Nick Schuster, Director of Scarborough Physio and Health, said neck pain is one of the most common complaints in his clinic.

“I estimate that it’s either second or third on the list of most common complaints, behind lower back pain.”

The majority of people don’t know what caused it, but prolonged postures and repetitive movements are most likely the culprits, said Mr Schuster.

The study shows that strength-based exercises of the neck, upper back and shoulders are proven to reduce neck pain, more-so than static stretches, which used to be the ‘go to’ exercises for neck pain and stiffness, explained Mr Schuster.

“This is in keeping with modern and evidence-based physiotherapy treatments of neck pain, and why you see so many people who initially start with a physiotherapist ending up doing their rehab in a gym.”

As for ergonomics having minimal impact on neck pain, this is consistent with similar research from Prof. Peter O’Sullivan of Curtin University, said Mr Schuster.

“O’Sullivan’s research questions links between posture and pain, and also suggests that trying to sustain perfect posture is not the answer to getting rid of the pain.

“He suggests regular movement and changes of position is more beneficial than having perfect posture – as even with perfect posture the person suffering neck pain is still in one position for too long.

“It is important to understand what movements, postures and activities are making a person’s neck pain worse, as changing the habits and behaviours leading to the neck pain coming on can stop it from returning.

"The majority of neck pain sufferers I look after sit at a desk, and they are in one position for too long. They are not moving often enough.

“If they are not exercising regularly and their muscles are weak, this can also contribute to them developing neck pain.

“Many people who suffer neck pain also find benefit in lifting light weights at the gym, or doing active rehabilitation exercises, for instance, clinical pilates.”

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.