I joke about the pain in the neck, but neck pain is not a laughing matter. It can become downright debilitating. This week, pain in the neck seems to be the most common complaint, so I thought, let’s talk about it. When your neck is stiff, it can prevent you from turning your head from one side to the other, looking up, or looking down. In some cases, a person could suffer in all these areas. People make some very common mistakes in treating their neck pain, like using ice, neck braces, or just trying to force the neck to move. All of these can make it worse.
What Causes the Pain in the Neck?
There are many activities that can set off neck pain and we all do them nearly every day. Sitting in front of a computer is a common activity. Many people will spend money on ergonomic furniture, place the monitor on the wall, or buy a stand-up desk. However, these external fixes will do little to resolve your neck pain. Other common activities include driving, reading, walking, lifting anything of significant weight, sitting in recliners, and slouching while seated. The position that your head is in while doing these activities is why your neck hurts. However, there is more to the story.
Think of your head like a bowling ball sitting on top of your spine with four major muscles controlling it. There are two muscles on the front side and two muscles on the back side. The two front muscles are the Sternocleidomastoids, and the two rear muscles are the Levator Scapulae. If we rotate our head to the right, the right rear muscle must contract and the left front muscle must release (lengthen). When we rotate to the left, the left rear muscle must contract as the right front muscle releases. If we look up, by tilting the head back, the two back muscles must contract as the two front muscles release. If we look down, the two front muscles must contract as the two back muscles release. My goal here is for you to visualize how your major neck muscles work to move the head in different directions.
Pain in the neck comes when one of these four major neck muscles stops working. If you never look up, over time the two front neck muscles shorten, making it difficult for the two back neck muscles to contract in order to lift your head up. Pain is felt on the back of your neck and between your shoulder blades. Over time, the two back neck muscles lock into to place, making it difficult to bend the head downward. Again, pain is on the back side of the neck and between the shoulder blades.
Pain when rotating your head is the most common neck complaint I hear. Usually, a client wakes up with a stiff neck unable to turn their head. The client will say they slept “wrong”, or they slept too long on one side. This can happen, especially if your muscles get chilled while sleeping. However, there is usually more to the story. I have seen some people working on a computer where their screen is to the right or left of the keyboard. This can cause one of the two front neck muscles to shorten and lock into place. Then when you go to sleep at night and the muscle chills down, a spasm can occur overnight. The computer screen should be in front of you. If you cannot do this, then turn your chair so you are facing the screen.
Carrying a heavy purse, or anything heavy, on one side for too long can set off the neck pain making rotation of the head very painful. Many clients will, by habit, carry their purse, or shoulder bag, on the same shoulder day after day. Some clients, when carrying a heavy item, will carry it in the same hand, again by habit. When you do these things, it overstresses one side of the neck placing the neck muscles on that side into a spasm. Again, when you sleep at night and the muscles chill down, a stiff neck can occur. My suggestion is to alternate which side you use for lifting and carrying throughout the day. If your shoulder bag can be worn as a backpack, then use it that way to balance out your body.
How to Solve your Neck Pain!
Always use heat instead of ice. Heat brings warm blood to the surface of the muscle tissue allowing it to become more pliable. Use your tennis ball against the wall for your upper back. Do not roll on it but use the ball to pinpoint spots on your upper back that are painful. When you find a painful spot, stay there, maintain the pressure and breathe out to allow the muscle to release. You want your upper back muscles to relax and release as they have been working overtime fighting with the front side of your neck. Now you are ready to stretch your neck.
Last week I gave you the videos for the neck hyperextension and hyperextension oblique stretches, so go back and review those. Today I am giving you the stretches for the back side of your neck, the levator scapulae, which run from the base of your skull to the inside corner of your shoulder blade. There is one on each side of your neck and they work in tandem with the front two muscles of the neck, which you can see every time you turn your head. I would suggest you do all four stretches several times every day if you work all day on a computer.
The second video will show how to stretch the sides of your neck. If you are someone who carries a heavy bag on one side or lifts heavy objects on one side, this stretch can help. The last thing I will suggest in this situation is, if you have someone at home who can help you, sit in a hard-backed chair and have your friend stand behind you, place their forearm on the top of one shoulder and gently press down as you breathe out. I don’t want them to think they can push it out and press too hard. If that happens, your muscles will only fight with them and make it worse. You want just enough pressure so that you can still breathe and feel the muscle relax. When this happens, you will feel your shoulder drop down and the pain will cease. Now, go forth and stop your pain!
Tips to Improve your Stretching
All you need is a yoga strap and a tennis ball for the tennis ball massage. Give yourself about 15 minutes twice a day and you should see better results within 2 weeks. This, though, is a lifetime event. Think of your pet. they stretch everyday and several times a day. Stretch when they stretch. Follow the videos below and free your knees. In my opinion, the calf stretch is the most important stretch a human can do. It will solve many issues of the body.
Stretching is more about feeling the muscles letting go than forcing them to stretch. If you are forcing the muscle, you could be doing strength training, not stretching. Make sure you are feeling the intended muscle stretching. If not, the form could be wrong. Holding for 5 seconds allows the brain to release the muscle before it senses any danger. Repeating the stretches 10 times allows the brain to learn it is safe for the muscle to move that way.
Don’t forget the Tennis Ball Massage!
Softening your hips and back is easy when you use the tennis ball. Just lean against the wall and apply enough pressure to feel the painful area. The temptation is to press harder but resist it. Instead, breathe out and allow the muscle to soften under the ball. Then move to another spot and repeat. Continue doing this until most of the painful spots are gone. Check out previous newsletters to see the video.
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About The Muscle Repair Shop
Drawing upon his personal experience as a former competitive athlete turned wheelchair, obese, and chronic pain sufferer, Muscle Repair Shop founder Butch Phelps decided to take his health into his own hands when at the age of 36 he was told he might not make it to his 40th birthday. Applying balanced nutrition advice from his doctor along with a sound exercise program, he went from 315 lbs. to 180 lbs. Motivated by his experience, he then acquired degrees in advanced therapeutic massage and aging sciences to help people eliminate chronic pain. This included applying his expertise in how people age, including the effects of dementia, anatomy, psychology, and the day-to-day struggles living as an older person to his practice and development of The Muscle Repair Shop’s one-of-a-kind Stretch n’ Release Technique.
Available through in-office and virtual coaching treatment sessions, this unique combination of stretching and breath work teaches the brain to release the emotional side of muscle tension and pain allows clients to find lasting relief and healing from stiffness, aches, injuries, and chronic pain. The at-home exercises come with customized instructional videos and virtual or in-office support, allowing clients to enjoy and experience life and sports as they did before limitations slowed or curtailed activities.