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They're designed to protect you in the event of a vehicle incident, but they're causing a problem.

headrest neck and back pain

Neck and Shoulder Pain from Vehicle Headrests

Constance Kam, Registered Massage Therapist

May 13, 2017

They’re designed to protect you in the event of a vehicle incident, but they’re causing a problem.

The human body instinctively ensures that the eyes are level and looking straight ahead, no matter how it must contort itself to achieve that. 

Try a mini experiment: looking straight ahead, raise your right shoulder slightly upward. You’ll notice your head slightly side-bends to the right. This is your body’s subconscious direction to keep the eyes level.

Now try jutting the chin forward. You’ll notice your forehead moves upward and possibly your shoulders rolling forward. This is considered a non-neutral neck position, known to cause significant side effects in the long-term, and some of this can be caused by your vehicle head restraint.

Take a look at the picture above and note the forward angle of the headrests. This is a common headrest positioning that vehicle manufacturers are producing. Why? Well, they have found that a lot of us slouch forward, and in order to maintain their crash test ratings, they need to ensure that the gap between the headrest and the driver’s head is minimal. So with us slouching forward, our neck juts forward, and this is why the headrests need to be angled forward.

Unfortunately, this forces a static positioning of your chin jutted forward and the angling of your head upward. It puts significant strain on your cervical spine, causing nerve impingement that can be felt around the neck and can travel all the way down the arms and into the fingers. It also overstretches the front neck muscles and reduces the flexibility of the posterior neck muscles and shoulders. This is why you might feel neck and upper shoulder soreness after driving for a period of time and possibly for longer periods afterward.

neutral neck position

How to get the best positioning out of your headrest.

Step 1: Let’s not forget the original reason for the headrest, which is to reduce neck injury in the event of a vehicle collision. The first step is to ensure the correct height. Adjust the head restraint up or down so that the centre of your head meets the centre of the headrest.

Step 2: The distance between your head and the head restraint should be less than 4 inches. Try altering the seat backrest or the headrest in order to accomplish this distance. Some drivers can manage with an back rest insert that is placed between the driver’s back and the seat backrest. However, be cautious this does not cause the hips to tilt forward, which can cause lower back pain.

If Step 2 is not feasible, there is the costly, but worthwhile investment of Step 3: purchase an active head restraint. These active head restraints meet vehicle safety standards but do not encroach on neutral upper back and neck posture. If there is a quick acceleration of the vehicle that forces the driver backward into the seat, the headrest sense this and actively advances forward to meet the head and prevent whiplash effects.

Step 4: Align your neck. Massage can help counteract the long-terms effects of poor neck posture by lengthening the muscles that have become shortened over time. This can relieve nerve impingement and allow the body to “relearn” proper neck positioning.

Happy and healthy driving!


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