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New year, new professional fitness: ‘Neck pain’ or ‘pain in the neck’?

March 1, 2019
Here are exercises for dental hygienists to nix their neck pain and improve neck health.

Editor’s note: This article is part two of a three-part series. Part oneappeared in January. Part three will appear in May.

How are those new fitness goals going for 2019? Has the motivation dwindled with your mounting to-do list? Has it become just one more pain in the neck? And what about your neck? Is there still pain there, too?

Don’t be shocked if you can relate. In terms of New Year’s fitness resolutions, most people’s fall by the wayside. And in terms of neck pain, more than 75% of dental hygienists suffer from it daily.1 In fact, it is the most common pain complaint.1 But don’t let that discourage you. There is hope.

I’m here to help rekindle your health motivation and the momentum you had back at the New Year. In my January article, “New Year, New Professional Fitness,” I described my struggle with neck and back pain, as well as my battle with fitness. I assured you that the changes I made were not because of a New Year’s resolution. The goal was long-term. But even today, becoming pain-free still takes work and attention, as does maintaining fitness. Every day, I’m grateful for what my body allows me to do in dentistry. This thought motivates me to constantly keep my body in optimal working condition. Plus, I want my body to feel as good at work as it does outside of work, so that I have plenty of energy reserves for family and friends.

With that in mind, I’m now going to share with you how I keep the momentum rolling. I want to teach you things my team and I do daily to keep pain at bay.

Where to put your focus

As we talked about in the first article, being pain free is not all about ergonomics. However, most of us do spend 30 to 40 hours a week seated and craned over our patients with instruments in hand. So what is that one thing we can do ergonomically that will help us the most with our necks? In my opinion, the most vital thing we can do while we are in a seated, sedentary, and working position is to have optimal head alignment.

Optimal head alignment creates the least amount of force on our cervical disks and muscular system. Your head should sit squarely over your shoulders, and from a side view your ear should be vertically in line with the shoulders. However, this position is practically impossible to achieve when treating patients. We must see and maneuver our instruments inside a tiny, dark, wet hole—the mouth. A craned, head-forward posture of the neck causes wear and tear on our tissues, which often produces pain. It also leads to overworked muscles of the neck and upper back. This painful scenario can also initiate tension headaches and breathing issues. Even worse, it can lead to cervical arthritis, cervical stenosis, disk herniation, or disk degeneration.

The lifesavers for me to reduce forward head posture are loupes and headlights. The best-fitting loupes are those that allow you to see comfortably with as little forward head posture as possible. In loupe terms, you want the lens tilted down at the steepest angle—called the declination angle—toward your patient. The lenses tilt so your head does not have to. The loupes I wear are made by Surgitel, which makes loupes with some of the steepest declination angles on the market.

Headlights are also necessary to increase my vision access and prevent harmful forward-head posture. I pair my loupes with the Surgitel Wireless Air light. I prefer the wireless headlights to those with the cord-attached battery pack because of the freedom of movement that the wireless technology gives me. I can take off my loupes and jump right into my exercises and stretches without getting tangled up in a battery pack and cord.

And that is what I want to highlight—the exercises and the stretches. In a broader perspective than ergonomics, it is how we move through our environment that shapes us, helps us, and even heals us. I’ve illustrated here the series of movements and stretches that my team and I do every day. We set reminders on our patient schedule as well as on our personal phones to do our stretches and move more. Remember: these exercises are as easy to do as they are to forget. Consistency is key. Steady progress with movement and body awareness will make all the difference to achieving less pain—and more fitness gain!

Neck health: Movement series

Side-neck stretch

Where: In the operatory

When: After each patient

While seated, rest your right hand slightly behind your right shoulder. With your left hand, gently pull your head to the left until you feel a stretch near your right shoulder blade along the side of your neck. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat three times on both sides.

Head pull

Where: In the operatory

When: After each patient

While seated, turn your head slightly to the left and look down toward your left knee. With your left hand, gently pull your head in the same direction until you feel a stretch in the upper right trapezius (the muscle on the right side of the back of your neck). Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat three times on both sides.

Dolphin at wall

Where: In the operatory or hallway (any wall will do)

When: Between patients

Place your forearms on the wall and parallel to one another below shoulder height, fingertips up, keeping elbows shoulders-distance apart. Take a few steps back from the wall and allow your head to relax down between your arms. Your torso should be parallel to the ground. Breathe here for 5–10 deep breaths.

Standing forward-fold variation

Where: In the operatory

When: Between patients

Stand in mountain pose. Take a deep inhale to reach arms up overhead, framing the face. Use your exhale to engage your navel to your spine, and swan dive over your legs while maintaining a flat back. Grab ahold of your opposite elbows and hang, swaying side to side (if comfortable) to loosen your lower back. Press all four corners of both feet into the ground and lift your “sit bones” toward the ceiling. Relax your head and neck. For this variation, soften the knees. Breathe here for 5–10 deep breaths.

Desirée Walker, DDS, FICD, is a general dentist and owner of Lumber River Dental in Lumberton, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry in 2008. Outside of her practice and training for her next appearance on American Ninja Warrior, she does yoga and gymnastics outdoors with her two cats, Lu and Jones. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram at ninjadentist_desi.