Tension neck syndrome is a pretty common condition that is caused by muscle strain in the upper back. The nature of repetitive work in cramped and uncomfortable postures common to the construction industry mean that tension neck syndrome is particularly prevalent amongst those doing manual labour.
The condition can result in neck stiffness, muscle spasms, and neck pain and/or pain radiating from the cervical spine to the shoulders, head, and even into the arms and chest. This condition is particularly common in those working in the construction industry, but there are ways to reduce the risk of tension neck syndrome in such jobs, with many of these solutions also applying in other areas of life.
What is Tension Neck Syndrome?
The main muscle involved in tension neck syndrome is the trapezius muscle in the upper back. This large muscle spans across the upper back, shoulders and neck and when the trapezius is strained you may be able to feel ‘knots’ in the muscle, where the muscle fibres are inflamed, in spasm, or abnormally contracted. Diagnosing tension neck syndrome can be difficult as blood tests and and x-rays often reveal no abnormalities. It is important that the condition is differentiated from other musculoskeletal disorders however, so as to access proper treatment and ensure adequate rest.
Trapezius muscle overactivity is also thought to occur in many of those who have suffered from whiplash, with botox injections sometimes considered for this indication.
Treating Tension Neck Syndrome
Taking muscle relaxants may leave the cervical spine vulnerable to damage as the trapezius is so key to maintaining neck and head posture. However, in some cases it may be necessary to resort to such medications to stop the muscle from spasming and causing severe neck pain. The application of heat may also help relax tense neck muscles but it is important to be careful not to apply heat when the muscle is inflamed. Similarly, ice may help to cool inflammation but there is a risk of preventing proper muscle healing or shocking the muscle if ice is applied too soon or too frequently.
Tension Neck Syndrome Prognosis
Some of those who develop tension neck syndrome become more sensitive to pain through nociceptor overactivity. Chronic neck pain can arise from tension neck syndrome with only a small number of patients experiencing a full resolution of their symptoms. It may be that workers with tension neck syndrome require transfer to another work station or a less manual job. Early intervention is vital to minimise permanent neck damage and the risk of chronic pain. Some patients may be instructed in neck stretches and strengthening exercises to reduce the risk of further damage.
Causes of Tension Neck Syndrome
Causes of tension neck syndrome include physical labour such as in construction work, with proper manual handling practices designed to try to reduce the risk of such neck injuries in this kind of employment. Taking regular breaks, especially if your neck muscles are already feeling tense, using all available equipment to reduce your risk of injury, and favouring repeated trips carrying lighter loads rather than overloading yourself when carrying heavy objects are all key to reducing tension neck syndrome. Common factors in developing tension neck syndrome and shoulder tendonitis in construction workers include:
- Working with the hands above shoulder level
- Repetitive movements of the hands and wrists
- Lifting the shoulders up and to the side repeatedly
- Constrained shoulder, head and neck posture, especially when over prolonged periods
- Frequent static contractions of the shoulders and neck muscles
- Using hand tools for overhead work
Reducing Tension Neck Syndrome Risks
In construction there are now many newer materials and building components that are just as strong but which are lighter to carry and easier to manoeuvre. Lightweight masonry blocks are one such example, as are half-weight bags of cement. Other strategies for reducing neck pain from muscle strain include drill adaptors for use when having to repeatedly drill holes or affix screws overhead. This way, the worker can hold the drill lower down, rather than having the arms raised above the head continuously. Unfortunately, this does not resolve the issue of having to look up, meaning that regular breaks and neck stretches are advised.
Other suggestions for reducing workplace injuries and tension neck syndrome include the use of more modern devices for applying screed, plastering, drilling, and transporting cement hoses which can be extremely heavy and difficult to handle, getting stuck on rebar and tacks as they are dragged over unfinished surfaces. If you suspect that you have tension neck syndrome or another neck condition it is vital that you undergo physical assessment rather than continuing to work and potentially exacerbating the problem.