5 reasons why neck pain gets worse around the holidays

The holiday season can be a magical time — full of family, tradition, food and fun. But this time of year doesn’t come without challenges, some of which come from increased body aches and pains. Several factors — some more obvious than others — can make this happy time particularly tough for those dealing with neck pain. 

Read on for five things that could worsen your neck pain this holiday season and, of course, tips to stay ahead of them.

1. Your activity

Schedules tend to get more hectic and less predictable around the holidays, which often means typical exercise routines and self-care get put on the back burner. Overall physical activity tends to decline at this time of year, especially for those of us in cold winter climates — as winter hibernation begins, outdoor physical activities end, and time spent on our couches typically increases. It takes quite a bit more effort to stay active in the winter, and despite your best efforts, it’s not uncommon to fall short of spring and summer fitness levels.

In addition to changes in the amount of physical activity, the types of activities you’re doing may change this time of the year. You might find yourself watching more movies, spending more time on your phone or doing indoor things like board games and playing cards. You may also be doing something your body isn’t used to, like baking, cookie decorating and gift wrapping. Most of these indoor activities occur sitting with compromised posture — neck forward, gaze down. Holding this position for prolonged periods can increase neck strain and quickly contribute to increased pain. 

PT Tip: Make a daily effort to exercise and move your body, even if it is just for a few minutes, to avoid increased neck stiffness. Also, pay attention to your posture with your indoor activities. If you are playing board games, doing a puzzle or spending more time on your phone, take frequent breaks and stretch out your upper back and neck to avoid straining your muscles. If you are sitting for movie or TV marathons, use pillows to position yourself more upright or choose a more supportive chair instead of a soft couch — both will give your neck better support.

2. The cold

So now we’ve made the connection between cold weather and decreased overall physical activity, but can the cold directly cause pain? Interestingly, research suggests that the cold can impact muscle tightness and joint stiffness, directly contributing to increased pain. Picture someone shivering outside in the cold; how does their posture look? You’re likely visualizing someone hunched over with their shoulders drawn way up by their ears. And you’d be right. This posture is a universal giveaway for “I’m cold” and also happens to be very irritating for your neck. Holding tension in your neck and upper back muscles can tighten those muscles over time and increase pain.

Many people with arthritis report worsening symptoms in colder temperatures. Although science can’t say for sure why joint pain worsens in the cold, anecdotally, joint-pain sufferers agree that the cold can be tough. The predominant theory is that the fluid inside your joints thickens when it gets cold, causing more stiffness and impaired joint mobility, which increases pain and irritation. Additionally, this thickening has also been blamed on changes in barometric pressure, which are thought to cause the body’s tissues to expand, contributing to a tightening effect.

PT Tip: Bundle up! Remember, there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. With the right number of layers and outdoor equipment, you can enjoy the cold weather and still keep your muscles and joints warm. If you simply don’t enjoy exercising outside, consider setting up an exercise space inside your home — a dedicated space will make it easier for you to commit to a regular exercise routine that continues through the winter months. Finally, take a little extra time to warm up and stretch your neck and upper back after you’ve spent time outside.

3. Traveling 

Going home for the holidays? Traveling by car, plane, or train may leave you stuck in an uncomfortable seat for hours. Sitting for prolonged periods with poor support and posture can wreak havoc on your neck and back. Also, lifting and carrying heavy luggage can strain your neck, upper back and shoulders. 

To make matters worse, when you aren’t home, you may not have access to all of your typical pain relief tools like stretching straps, foam rollers, hot or cold therapy and other equipment. 

PT Tip: Pack all the travel-friendly tools you normally use for pain relief. Just because you are leaving home doesn’t mean you have to abandon your toolbox, so be sure to grab ice packs, heating pads, stretching straps, self-massage devices and any pain-relieving medication you usually take. If flying, be creative for items that aren’t travel-approved. For example, bring empty ziplock bags or paper cups that can be filled with water and frozen for ice packs once you get to your destination. Bring a hand towel or small pillow to put behind your neck or back to help you maintain good posture in any seat you encounter, and bring a lacrosse ball or tennis ball for simple self-massage. Finally, make sure you use a suitcase with wheels and luggage straps to make your belongings easier to handle.

4. Stress

The holidays can be stressful for many reasons. For starters, it’s the most expensive time of year for many with gift buying, traveling and event expenses. Watching your bank account balance diminish, credit card bills stack up or worrying about affording gifts for your family can certainly contribute to stress and anxiety. Traveling can also cause added stress, especially when battling crowds and delays. And let’s not forget family. As much as you love them, family members can be another source of stress. Spending more time with extended family over the holidays, often in confined spaces, can lead to arguments and challenge your mental health.

Research shows a direct correlation between stress and neck pain. Stress can contribute to altered pain processing in the body and increases the likelihood of neck pain-related disability. 

PT Tip: No matter the cause, stress can have a ripple effect contributing to more neck muscle tightness and pain. Regular exercise and self-care are great for your mental health and can help manage the physical manifestations of stress. Consider adding daily meditation and diaphragmatic breathing exercises to help calm an overactive mind. Working with a mental health professional or health coach or simply confiding in a friend can help alleviate some stress too.

5. Sugar

Cookies, pies and candy, oh my! Holiday baking and traditions usually mean higher dietary consumption of sugar. Sugar has been shown to increase the body’s production of inflammatory proteins, which can lead to more general inflammation and ultimately increase muscle and joint pain. Sugar and highly processed foods seem particularly problematic for individuals with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis who already have higher baseline inflammatory markers.

PT Tip: Try (as much as possible) to stick to your regular diet over the holidays. Don’t miss out entirely on grandma’s famous Christmas cookies; instead, consume sweet treats mindfully and in moderation. Consider bringing a healthier alternative lower in refined sugar, like fresh fruit. You can also limit sugar intake by not drinking your daily sugar allotment. Eliminate soft drinks and skip the added sugar in your coffee. Drink more water to replace sugary drink alternatives and make you feel fuller, so it’s easier to have just one piece of the pie. And as always, continuing your exercise routine can help ward off any problems caused by higher sugar intake.

BONUS PT Tip: Get a routine that works year-round. The recurring theme here is that abandoning your typical physical health routine can significantly impact aches and pains. Having a self-care routine that is mobile, accessible and realistic can make all of the difference this time of year. RecoveryOne offers personalized back and joint health programs with 1-on-1 health coaching that you can take with you anywhere! So, RecoveryOne can help you stay on track and address pain flare-ups, whether you’re in a hotel, visiting family, or even in transit.

About the Author:

Written by Dr. Jess Cobb, PT, DPT. Jess is a licensed physical therapist with over six years of clinical experience in orthopedics. Jess is also a writer, educator and member of RecoveryOne’s marketing team. She’s passionate about helping people better understand their pain, manage their musculoskeletal conditions and confidently get back to the activities they love.

This blog and its contents do not constitute medical advice specific to you or your condition. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be used for self-diagnosis. Consult a qualified professional for appropriate medical advice.