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Is Driving A Pain In The Neck?

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been on the road driving interstate for hours on end. You finally get to your destination but as you go to move, and it suddenly feels like someone’s driving white-hot nails into your neck or shoulder.  Sometimes, this pain can come on long before you reach your destination.  

This sort of thing can be one reason why some people prefer to fly rather than go on long-distance road trips.  However, if you prefer to drive, as a lot of us do, and you want to see the scenery up close as you travel, then you probably want to stop the long hours of driving becoming a literal pain in the neck.

What causes neck pain when driving?  Two factors are at play here. The first is that your head is kind of heavy, and your neck has to have the muscles to support it – if you’ve ever seen or held a newborn baby, you’ll know that we aren’t born with the ability to hold up our big brains inside our big heads, and these muscles have to be developed pronto.  The second factor is that when driving, we tend to keep our heads and necks in more or less one position the whole time: on the road ahead, with the occasional head-check of the wing mirrors. Being forced into one position for a long time causes the muscles to cramp.  I don’t know if the heads-up displays found in most modern vehicles make the problem worse or not.

The issue of support is easy enough to deal with. For a start off, adjust your headrest. Most of us know how to adjust the lumbar support (if your driver seat has this; many do) and the angle of the seat to the right position. If you don’t know how to do this properly, the idea is to have your seat back at an angle so your hips and shoulders are stacked above each other (the seat and the back should be at an angle of 90–100°). If you like to slump or slouch back, your neck will have to go at an angle it doesn’t like for long periods so you can see ahead. Fixing the angle of your seat and making sure that your lumbar support is sitting nicely in the small of your back will go a long way to avoiding neck pain while driving.  Also make sure that the head rest is touching the back of your head.

However, even with the cushiest of seats in the perfect position, your neck will get tired and sore after a while. This means that you may need to take other steps during long-distance drives to avoid your neck aching.

The best tips I’ve found for avoiding neck pain while driving are the following:

  1. Get a neck support pillow. You might feel that you look silly wearing something that looks like you’ve just had neck surgery, but at least you’ll feel a lot more comfortable. These pillows will take some of the weight of your head so your neck doesn’t have to work so hard.
  2. Adjust your hand position during long drives.  Yes, we all know that 10 to 2 is the best position to have your hands on the steering wheel, but keeping your arms in this position will cramp the trapezius muscles (that’s a big group of muscles in your neck and shoulder).  During a long drive, change your hand positions around.
  3. Chill out. Many of us tend to clench our jaws and tense our shoulders when we feel stressed.  This leads to agonizingly tight shoulders.  As you drive (assuming that you’re not in a high-pressure situation), do a quick survey of your neck, jaw and shoulders.  Are you holding your stress in these parts of your body?  Do a few deep breathing exercises as you drive to help dispel the stress.
  4. Massage. Use self-massage (with one hand on the back of your neck), a massage seat or a helpful passenger riding shotgun to give the muscles in your shoulders and neck a quick squeeze and rub.
  5. Move your neck. Even while you’re driving, you can move your neck and shoulders – without taking your eyes off the road.  Shrug your shoulders and try to roll them.  Do that neck roll and one-sided shrug you see tough guys and gals in the movies do before a fight.  Slide your neck from side to side while staying level like a belly dancer.  Tilt your head from side to side like a stereotypical Indian. Nod and shake your head.  As long as you keep your eyes on the road ahead, you’re all good.
  6. Take a break! The fact that your neck is sore is a sure sign that you’ve been sitting in one position for too long. Your legs could probably do with a break as well.  Pull over and stretch your legs. As well as all the neck exercises mentioned above, remember to move your arms and do a few twists of your spine as well.

Obviously, if the traffic is heavy or if you’re driving through the middle of the city, then you may not be able to do all of these. However, do what you can when you can, and you’ll find that driving is less of a pain in the neck.