Pain In The Neck? Want Some Relief?
Many (non-traumatic) neck problems are symptoms of something called upper cross syndrome. Too many Americans unknowingly suffer from this condition. It’s when some of your upper body’s anterior soft tissue becomes tight coupled with weakened posterior muscles. The syndrome arises mostly due to faulty prolonged postures i.e. sitting for long periods, slouching and stress induced positions. Our bodies are just not designed to be sedentary and seated for the majority of the day. Upper cross syndrome becomes an unyielding cycle where some muscles grow tighter as their antagonists become weaker. This loop continues until pain and/or injury demands intervention. After awhile your muscles will adaptively shorten and no amount of therapy will bring them back to their original length. This imbalance puts your joints at risk for arthritis, functional instability, shoulder pain, nerve compression, back pain, headaches, TMJ and a whole host of other ailments. An extreme case of this syndrome is someone who develops a hump back and is so tight they couldn’t stand up straight no matter how hard they try.
Upper Cross Syndrome
Tight muscles: Upper traps and Levator Scapula (no neck football player muscles) Pectorals (chest muscles) Sternocleidomastoid (a large muscle band in the front of the neck)
Weak Muscles: Deep Cervical Flexors (mostly stabilizers on the back of your neck) Lower Traps (muscle in the middle of your back) Rhomboids (muscle between your shoulder blades)
A major component of upper cross syndrome is a forward head, which pulls the cervical spine out of alignment. All 33 vertebrae work as a unit and if one part is misaligned it affects the whole integrity of your spinal column. Your head may not be full of rocks but it does weight 10-15lbs. The extra weight of a forward head increases the forces on your neck and torso muscles. In balanced posture your head is stacked over your axial skeleton putting very little force on the surrounding soft tissue. The extra force of a forward head, coupled with a misaligned spine, changes the body’s center of mass. During all your waking hours your muscles in your neck and upper back must now overcome these forces. For every inch the head moves forward of the shoulders (in a balanced posture your ears should be aligned with middle of deltoids), the stress on the supporting muscles increases approximately by 10 pounds.
Pain in the neck? Five effective things you can to do to help:
1- Practice good posture as much as you can. I cannot stress this enough. Practice even when you are eating and talking on the phone! Picture a string attached to the top of your head with some benevolent puppeteer pulling you up into the sky. Or if you prefer, imagine you are a dancer or model walking down the street.
2- Stretch your chest muscles and strengthen your rhomboids and lower trapezious with this stretch done daily. Make sure you hold this position for no less than 30 seconds. Interlace your fingers on the back of your head (like you are being arrested) and pull your shoulder blades back together so they kiss and keep your shoulders down. Repeat 2 to 3 times daily.
3- Do the double chin push in exercise daily for 10 reps – Pull head straight back with finger on your chin; keep eyes and jaw level (don’t look up). Hold for a 2 seconds and repeat. You should feel a mild contraction on the back of your neck. I call it the “double chin” because when your head is back it’ll look as if you grew a two chins. Sexy.
4- The wall angel exercise is a great exercise for the lower traps and rhomboids. Make sure your arms as a far back against the wall as you can put them; palms facing out; head against the wall and feet slightly in front of the wall. As you lower your arms down make sure your shoulder blades are depressing and slightly retracting. Do 10 reps daily.
5- Prone Y’s are also an excellent exercise to strengthen your surrounding neck musculature; lower trapezious, posterior deltoid and rotator cuff, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi muscles. It is a great scapular stabilization movement which helps protect the cervical spine. Lie on your stomach on a mat, with your arms outstretched overhead palms facing one another (thumbs up) and your legs outstretched behind you. Pull your shoulders blades back and down. Align your head with your upper spine. Keep these engagements throughout the exercise. Slowly lift your arms off the floor, moving your arms into the “Y” formation as illustrated (below). Keep your head aligned with your upper spine. Focus on lifting from the shoulders and not the low back. Hold this position for 5 – 10 seconds then relax and return to your starting position. Perform 2 – 4 repetitions.
If you experience sharp or radiating pain during any of these movements discontinue. I believe the most important step to relive neck pain is to practice good posture as much as you can. Practice, practice, practice…..
1. Craig Liebenson, Rehabilitation of the spine : a practitioner’s manual; Edition: 2nd ed. Publisher: Philadelphia : Lippincott Williams, 2007. 2. M. Siff, Verkhoshansky, Supertraining, Publisher: Verkhoshansky, 2009.
3. American Council on Exercise, http://www.acefitness.org“Prone Scapular (Shoulder) Stabilization Series – I, Y, T, W, O Formation”
4. Hertling D & Kessler R. Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders: Physical Therapy Principles and Methods. Fourth Edition. Lippincot Williams & Wilkins. 2006;150.
Doug Joachim – NYC www.JoachimsTraining.com