New research suggests that strength training may ease chronic neck and shoulder pain, a problem that has grown increasingly common as people spend more time on computers.
Neck and shoulder pain commonly stems from the upper trapezius muscle, which spans the upper back and shoulders, and helps move the neck. Repeatedly performing “monotonous” tasks, such as computer operations or assembly-line work, can cause the muscle to become tight and tender.
The current study included 48 Danish women with chronic trapezius pain, most of whom spent much of their workday in front of a computer. Researchers randomly assigned the women to either perform supervised strengthening exercises or aerobic exercise, or to get general health counseling.
For 10 weeks, women in the strength-training group worked out their neck and shoulder muscles using hand weights, three times per week for 20 minutes. Women in the aerobic-exercise groups worked out on a stationary bike.
Pain decreased 70 to 80 percent
After 10 weeks, women who strength-trained showed a 70 percent to 80 percent decrease in their pain ratings from the beginning of the study. In contrast, those who got aerobic exercise often felt better in the couple hours afterward, but there was no long-term pain improvement.
The findings are published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.
The results suggest that specific exercises targeting sore neck and shoulder muscles can bring more pain relief than general exercise, according to lead researcher Dr. Lars L. Andersen, of the National Research Centre for Working Environment in Copenhagen.
Stronger muscles = less pain
Strength training itself boosts the metabolism of protein in muscle, he told Reuters Health, and this might help repair painful muscle tissue. In addition, stronger muscles can bear more of a workload, which might help prevent pain from developing.
Neck pain can have various sources, including arthritis and chronic headaches. According to Andersen, tightness and tenderness across the upper back and shoulders are clues that the pain stems from the trapezius.
Exercises you can do at home
The strength exercises used in the study were simple, standard ones for the shoulders and upper back — like slowly shrugging the shoulders while holding a weight in each hand, arms extended by the sides of the body. So they can be performed at home, Andersen said.
Some people with chronic neck pain may want to get the help of a physical therapist to start, he noted, but that’s up to the individual.