Sustained posture: a pain in the neck?

Have you ever walked away from your desk after a long day with a pain in your neck?

This is often caused by what is called 'sustained postures' and they can be harmful to our bodies.

We’ve put together a quick overview on sustained postures and how you and your physiotherapist can work to prevent side effects or damage.

What is a sustained posture?

Sustaining a posture refers to sitting or standing in the same position for longer than 30 minutes.

The most common sustained posture is the 'head down' position, also known as forward head posture.

This occurs when the head is bent forward i.e., flexed, and the shoulders are hunched.

We may not realise how commonly we find ourselves in this position it can happen in a variety of ways.

Some of the situations we can assume the 'head down' position include:

  • Working at a computer, laptop, or tablet
  • Looking at your smartphone or device while walking
  • Standing at your workbench or desk working on something intricate

Whether it’s working on a big assignment, working on a vehicle, or assembling a ship in a bottle, it’s not good for your spine and supporting muscles.

Most of the time this won’t cause any injury on its own, however over time it can lead to long-lasting pain and discomfort that can impact your work and day-to-day activities.

The effect on your neck muscles

When you hold a sustained posture for a long period of time it can cause the trapezius and neck extensor muscles at the back of your neck to stretch.

Conversely, your neck flexors and muscles at the front of your neck tighten, which causes a muscle imbalance.

This muscle imbalance can cause pain, headaches, discomfort, and stiffness – and stretches are often prescribed as a treatment for this.

The truth is stretches make up half of an effective treatment. Actively preventing long-term issues involves making good posture a habit in all areas of your life.

Here’s a few simple ways you can start making good posture a habit:

  • Set an alarm on your phone or pop-up reminders on your desktop to encourage a change of movement in the opposite direction of your sustained posture. For example, if you’ve been sitting for a long time reading a book, stand up and tilt your head to look at the ceiling.
  • Place a sticker or post-it note on your bedside table or bathroom mirror as a reminder to do your exercises when getting in or out of bed.
  • Ensure that your computer/workbench is set to the right height and distance from your head to promote good posture.

Building balance in your neck

To build balance back into your neck muscles, you must lengthen what was shortened (by stretching) and shorten what was lengthened (by strengthening).

Below are a couple of simple exercises to get you started strengthening your neck, along with stretches, will allow the muscles to return to being balanced.

Your physiotherapist will be able to diagnose and tailor a treatment plan to your needs.

The following exercises are simple and designed to be done anywhere at any time.

If any symptoms persist or worsen while doing these exercises stop immediately and consult your local general practitioner when possible.

If you feel light-headed, faint or experience altered hearing or vision while exercising stop and seek medical attention.

Stretches to strengthen your neck

Resisted left and right side-flexion

  • Start by lying on your back.
  • Place your hands on your head as illustrated. Each side of the picture (left and right) are separate exercises.
  • Gently push your head towards the direction of the arrow against the resistance of your hand.
  • The strength of resistance from your hand should match the strength you put into moving your head. Therefore, your head shouldn’t move much while doing this exercise.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Progress to holding each repetition for 10 seconds once you feel comfortable with the exercise.

Resisted flexion and extension

  • Start by lying on your back.
  • Place your hands on your head as illustrated. Each side of the picture (left and right) are separate exercises.
  • Gently push your head towards the direction of the arrow against the resistance of your hand.
  • The strength of resistance from your hand should match the strength you put into moving your head. Therefore, your head shouldn’t move much while doing this exercise.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 10 times.
  • Progress to holding each repetition for 10 seconds once you feel comfortable with the exercise.

Remember: if you lengthen, you’ve got to strengthen!


To assess your neck pain or you have concerns about your posture, book a consultation with an APM physiotherapist in your local area or by calling 0800 967 522.

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