How To Relieve Neck And Shoulder TensionNeck pain sucks.
I wearily dug my hand into my shoulder yet again, trying in vain to release the tension that had been settling there for the last hour. Neck pain and I were besties. We'd been that way for a while. I didn't appreciate the friendship – anyone whose neck gets knotted up knows just how poor this kind of 'friendship' is.
Until five years ago, when the pain stopped.
There were two elements I brought into my life at that time, which were simple enough to do and netted surprisingly good results.
There are truly a multitude of actions you can try to make your neck stop hurting. When I talk with my clients and friends, I see that there are two routes that are often not considered in the journey toward 'no neck pain'. These two items can be implemented into your life fairly easily, and will help your neck to function better & support that noggin' of yours better.*
*I will always remind you that if you have pain that concerns you, see a doctor.
Why Stretching Your Neck Muscles Doesn't Give You ReliefHand on head, yanking my skull down toward my shoulder, hoping it would relieve my pain. It never did.
Here's why stretching alone doesn't solve your neck pain.
When you stretch a muscle, you're lengthening it farther than its normal length-tension relationship it exists in. The muscle spindles that sit within the belly of the muscle are there to detect changes in the length of the muscle, and send that information to the central nervous system (CNS) so that the body can determine the position of the body parts.
If the CNS receives the signal that the length has changed in the area where you are stretching, it can send back a signal to lock down tight on that area because all it knows is that things are now 'more lengthened' from the length-tension relationship it knows.
The length a muscle is stretched to at rest will determine the force it can generate; if a muscle is under- or over- stretched it will negatively affect the amount of force the muscle can generate when fired, (i.e., when the muscle contracts).
Stretching a muscle can actually do the very opposite of what you're trying to achieve – making the very muscle you're trying to make less tight, tighter. This is the part where everyone throws their hands up because, 'for God's sake if stretching doesn't stretch your muscles what are we supposed to do then?'
Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. That's the first thing I want you to do. There is a time and place for stretching.
When paired up with dynamic movement and strengthening drills, stretching can make a positive impact on your muscles. But if you're only going to over-lengthen a muscle without also sending a signal to hold that new lengthened position, "stretching" isn't the solution you'd wish it to be.
[This is a gross oversimplification as 'stretching' alone deserves its own article, and so for the sake of brevity of this article, we'll leave it at this for now. Just know that there's a bigger, deeper picture with stretching which we can cover at another time.]
Where Fixing Neck Pain BeginsHow you do one thing is how you do everything.
How you position your head the majority of your day, including your sleep time, is one of the biggest factors in neck pain, and is often the most overlooked.
Your muscles respond to the signals they receive.
No matter what that signal is, your muscles will respond. Even if that response puts you in a significant movement hole in the future.
If you always send the signal that your skull belongs in front of your spine, your neck muscles, which were designed to keep your skull stacked on top of your spine, will alter their length in order to accommodate this new position.
The muscles in the front of your neck will shorten, the muscles in the back of your neck will lengthen (and subsequently tense up in order to try and restore order in that area). They will accommodate your new head & neck position, despite the fact that this new position increases the stress on the vertebrae and discs of your spine.
Despite the fact that the weight of your head on your spine increases the farther out in front of your spine it sits.
Despite the fact that your breathing will eventually be compromised by the change in shape of your neck.
Your muscles will respond to the stimuli you send them.
Just because you're a heart throb doesn't mean you're immune to sub-optimal neck and head position
Don't think you draw your head forward all day long?
Here are places where you may be drawing your head forward and not even realizing it. Plus, I have a corrective you can apply immediately to start fixing it.
Spotting And Fixing Sub-Optimal Posture In Your Daily Life
1) As You Stare At Your Computer ScreenThis is the obvious one that most everyone knows about by now, yet it still needs a giant flood light focused on it since we spend so much time at computers. You can do all of the postural work you want, but spending a vast majority of your day in sub-optimal head position will undo all of that postural work and then some.
If someone grabbed the hair at the very center back of your head and gently pulled your head back to the wall behind you – draw your head back just like that. Then, if we affixed a helium-filled balloon to the top of your head and its upward pull could gently pull your head up with it – draw your head into that position.
It's subtle. And should be relaxed. It may feel odd at first, but remember that 'odd' doesn't mean 'flexed as hard as possible.' Find the position and then relax into it. If need be, set a timer for an hourly or twice-hourly reminder to go off to alert you to your head position. If it's floated forward and down again, simply reset it.
2) As You Stare At The Rectangle In Your HandSource
Like every other human while you wait for the train, the bus, your kids, the guy in front of you at Chipotle – you're tipping your head over like a teapot to watch cat videos on the internet. Your neck muscles are being forced to hold a load they weren't intended to hold for sustained periods of time.
Two fixes actually –
1. Reset your arm position so that your skull can stay stacked on your head.
2. Learn to use your eye muscles for looking at things.
Bend your arm at the elbow and prop your elbow against your front of your ribcage, and have your phone propped up closer to your face. It looks like this:
A better texting body position
When it's just not possible to take that position, remember that you have eye muscles that let you look in a variety of directions without actually moving your head to do so. This isn't put into practice much in modern society. You don't need to look in a multitude of directions, so you just stop practicing it.
Take your phone & place it in your lap. Keep your head looking straight ahead and use your eyes to look down at the phone. Put the phone on the table a foot to your left or right. Without turning your head, use your eyes only to see the phone. Get in the habit of practicing seeing thing by using your eye muscles to shift your gaze.
3) As You Exercise, Working Every Muscle Into Shape, But Fully Neglecting The Muscles Of Your Neck & HeadWrong head position
Your muscles are linked together, firing in harmony and support of each other.
For example, if you push off the ground with your left leg during a sprint, you'll brace the muscles in your torso via an arm swing from your right arm. If you didn't swing the opposite arm of whatever leg was about to hit the ground as you sprinted, you'd have a hard time controlling the rotation of your torso without that arm swing.
Exercise is one way we enhance the linking together of the kinetic chain of muscles in our bodies.
The neck muscles have a strong interplay with the muscles of the trunk, which makes sense if you consider that your neck & trunk share the spine, and so the two working together to brace or allow for movement makes sense.
Remember that exercise is a time for you to spend in a conscious, controlled environment working on your muscular strength & movement organization – so that when you're in the real world, an unconscious, uncontrolled environment (like black ice you slip on as you head down the driveway) doesn't take you out at the knees.
Set Yourself Up For Less Injuries, Faster Recovery And Less PainIn the One Ounce Less Webinar, I explain how to move and train in hype-free way to strengthen your body and build durability.
Find out how to access the webinar here.
Train with better posture so that you maintain better posture. The most painful place I see sub-optimal posture during exercise is when folks drop into a plank position or do similar torso training work.
If you're going to do planks, bring your head backwards toward the sky as you hold the position. But don't look up! Your eyes should remain facing the floor and your head should simply slide backward.
If someone put a broomstick on your back as you held the plank, your back of your head would brush the broomstick as it stretched from your spine up past your head.
4) As You Sleep, Restoring & Recharging Every Part Of Your Body, Except Your Head & Neck MusclesIncorrect sleeping position
The woman in this photo is doing a poor job of maintaining optimal head position while she sleeps.
If she's a good sleeper, she's spending up to 9 hours per night with her head in this head-forward position.
Even though Sleeping Beauty is "resting", she is conditioning her muscles and fascia to maintain that folded forward head position. And if you've never looked intoTemporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ, aka, jaw problems) research, there is a surprising amount of muscle tension happening while we sleep if we are under stress. And who isn't under stress these days?
So despite the fact that sleeping should be a time of rest, you could be tensing your muscles quite hard throughout the night. Even if you're not tensing your muscles all night long, holding any position will, over time, encourage your body to make that its default position.
When you lie down tonight and are laying on your back or your side, take stock of where your head is positioned in relation to your body. Consider your spine at the center of your body. Stack your head on top of your body like the dot over a lowercase letter 'i'. Anytime you find yourself leaning your head off to the side or curling it forward & down, return to your letter 'i' position with your head.
This often means doing the exact same shift back that you did when you fixed your posture while looking at your computer screen. If laying on your side, just pull your head back into stacked alignment and relax into sleep.
If you wake up in the night, get in the habit of gently checking in on your posture to see where your head is at. It will likely have gone back to the old posture. Just bring it back into you new posture and go back to sleep. In time, you'll find yourself waking up still in that better-aligned head posture.
Where The Road To Fixing Neck Pain Leads NextDaily signaling, via body positioning, for your neck muscles that they are meant to maintain an optimal length-tension relationship is an excellent start to removing neck pain from your life for good. Neck muscles that can and will hold your head in good position without compromise, are the foundation for having a neck that doesn't ache.
In the next post on neck pain, I'll cover the second element that holds high value for taking care of neck pain for good. It's often overlooked and supports what we have covered here today – getting your head and neck into a better position and keeping them there.