Activity Cuts Chronic Neck Pain Risk in Sedentary Workers

People working at physically inactive jobs who do not do physical exercise outside of work were more likely to develop chronic neck pain than workers who did some physical activity during their leisure time.

TAMPA, Florida — In a prospective study, people who worked full-time at a desk job and did no physical exercise had an elevated risk of developing chronic neck pain after a year compared with those doing the same type of work but who did some kind of leisure physical activity.

“Physical activity is important for prevention of chronic neck pain, and it’s important for doctors to stress this fact to their patients at well visits, especially their patients who have desk jobs or jobs that involve a lot of sitting for long periods and are relatively physically inactive,” lead author Katrina Maluf, PhD, PT, from the University of Colorado, Denver, told Medscape Medical News.

Doctors should also consider prescribing a standard maintenance program of cervical extensor endurance exercises, Dr. Maluf said here at the American Pain Society (APS) 33rd Annual Scientific Meeting.

“You can activate the cervical extensors by pulling your shoulders back and down. That causes increased activation of the muscles in the back of your neck as well. Just sitting with good posture as opposed to falling into poor posture will exercise them and you can certainly do that at work while you are typing,” she said.

Sitting upright all day long is difficult for most people to do, but if they remember to sit upright at intervals and build up strength to sit properly for longer periods, they will be helping ward off chronic neck and other problems, Dr. Maluf added.


50% Increased Risk

Estimates of chronic neck pain vary widely, from 17% to 75% annually. In the current study, Dr. Maluf and her team assessed the role of physical activity in the development of chronic neck pain among 171 office workers.

Chronic neck pain was defined as interfering neck pain according to 2000–2010 Task Force on Neck Pain criteria, with symptoms located between the superior nuchal line and superior spine of the scapula or clavicle. Interfering symptoms had to be present for 3 or more months during the past year.

The study also defined leisure activity according to the Baecke Physical Activity Questionnaire, which asked study participants to rate their amount of activity compared with others their own age and to answer how often they play sports, watch television, walk, cycle, and sweat during physical activity.

The results showed that workers who reported that they did no physical activity outside of work had almost a 50% increased risk of developing neck pain compared with those who reported doing some physical activity.

The odds ratio (OR) for developing neck pain at 1 year was 1.48 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.33 – 6.62) for workers who did not do any leisure physical activity.

For workers who reported that they did some physical activity during their leisure time, the OR for developing neck pain at 1 year was 0.49 (95% CI, 0.26 – 0.95).

The researchers also found that the development of neck pain was associated with weaker cervical extensor muscles and that the workers who reported doing more leisure-time physical activity had greater cervical extensor endurance (250 seconds for those with no neck pain vs 150 seconds for those with neck pain).

“We really feel that it is important for physicians to ask about physical activity levels and tell their patients that there are benefits to preventing pain. We hope that physicians will encourage their patients to be proactive in this regard,” Dr. Maluf said.

“This study looks at a common problem, which is neck pain in office workers, and the finding that physical activity can go a long way to preventing this problem is an important one,” Laura Frey Law, PhD, PT, from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, asked by Medscape Medical News to comment on this study.

“Finding that physical activity is such a key predictor and not just a consequence of having pain but actually predicting who will develop pain is a very important one, and being physically inactive is a crucial, but fortunately modifiable, risk factor in people who have sedentary jobs. Dr. Maluf did a very nice job of demonstrating this,” Dr. Law said.

This study was funded by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Dr. Maluf and Dr. Law have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Pain Society (APS) 33rd Annual Scientific Meeting. No Abstract. Presented May 1, 2014.