The neck, consisting of the cervical spine and a myriad of small muscles, is a highly mobile structure tasked with supporting and providing movement for the head. This is no easy task when we realize that the average human head weighs approximately 12 pounds! Now to some of you that may not sound like much but walk around with a 12 pound bowling ball all day long, lifting it, lowering it, rotating it and simply supporting or carrying it, never resting or putting it down and I think you will realize the immense amount of pressure and strain that the neck is under all day, every day. Fortunately, when the neck is healthy with it’s seven bones properly aligned and it’s supporting musculature supple yet strong it is up to the task. However, with such a mobile structure under constant stress and strain it doesn’t take much for the neck to begin to function improperly resulting in a loss of ranges of motion, tension, tightness and often pain. As a matter of fact neck pain is quite common and impacts the lives of roughly 1 in 3 Americans.
So what causes neck pain?
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to neck pain. Some are obvious such as a whiplash from an automobile accident or a blow to the head or neck. These injuries are unfortunate and are often out of our control, many times resulting in long term discomfort and potentially disability. Fortunately blatant injury is not the most common cause of neck pain. More often neck pain is the result of easily controllable behaviors such as poor posture, sitting too long while driving or working, too much time looking down at a mobile device, poor sleeping positions (sleeping on your stomach is the worst) and stress. Over time these activities can turn a healthy spine into a spine begging for relief from tension and pain. And if you do have a history of injury to neck, even if the pain from the injury previously “went away”, you will certainly be more susceptible to experiencing pain from these spine traumatizing behaviors.
So how does an injury, poor posture, staring at your phone or sleeping on your stomach result in neck pain? The musculoskeletal system (muscles, tendons, bones) is dependent upon proper skeletal alignment and muscular balance to function optimally. The skeleton is essentially the framework of the body and provides a point of attachment for the muscles. Muscles work as the motor for the body so that when the contract they help to move or stabilize whatever bone or joint to which they are attached. There is an intricate relationship between the muscular and skeletal system. Muscles adapt to repetitive stress and this can be a positive or a negative dependent upon the stress. If we consistently lift weights and perform resistance training then our muscles get stronger and if we adhere to a regular stretching or yoga routine then our muscles become more flexible and supple and these are positive adaptations. However, if we sit with poor posture or in a fixed position for long periods of time our muscles will adapt to this negative stress by shortening, tightening and eventually pulling the skeletal system out of alignment. When the skeletal system is pulled out of proper alignment it will not move or function appropriately which causes joint and nerve irritation inevitably resulting in pain. It’s this combination of abnormal muscular and skeletal changes that cause not only neck pain but headaches, lower back pain, sciatica and many other musculoskeletal problems.
How do we “fix” neck pain?
Well the obvious answer is to avoid injuries and fix the spine injuring behaviors we have listed above. Sleep on your side or back and be sure your pillow puts you in a “neutral” position, meaning your head and neck are in line with the rest of your spine not cocked to one side. Stomach sleeping is horrible because you have to turn your head to one side all night long to breath so you end up creating a rotational imbalance because that is what you are training your musculoskeletal system to do. To improve posture simply think about lightly squeezing your shoulder blades together and down towards your lower back. This should be more of an “engagement” than an actual squeeze and it should result in your chest and shoulders slightly opening up though you should not be puffing your chest out. In addition to helping your mid back posture it will also bring your head more in line with your shoulders, where it is meant to be. This simple exercise should greatly improve your posture. Driving, sitting or staring at computer or mobile device too long is an easy fix as well. Simply taking regular breaks, at least once an hour, and moving will help to reduce the stress placed on the muscles in these positions. Even if its just a quick stretch or a walk to the restroom, breaking the pattern of sitting in the same position for hours on end will go a long way to maintaining a healthier musculoskeletal system.
The first step in improving neck pain is simply following the instructions listed above to help prevent the causes of poor musculoskeletal function in the neck and upper back. And while those items are important they do not address the issue of poor musculoskeletal alignment and balance, they only help to prevent further injury. This is where Chiropractic becomes vitally important. A Chiropractic adjustment to the neck can help to improve the spinal alignment, reducing joint irritation and ultimately helping to restore muscular balance. In addition to the Chiropractic adjustment It is essential that we also address the muscular imbalance directly through soft tissue therapy (think massage) and rehabilitation. If only massage is used to address neck pain and pain relief is achieved, it is very common for the pain to come back in a short amount of time due to the fact that the spinal alignment was not addressed. With the spinal misalignment and joint irritation remaining it is inevitable that the muscle imbalances will return. I hear “massage helped for a little while but the pain came back” frequently in our clinic and it simply reinforces the fact that we must address both the muscular and skeletal systems to get full healing and long lasting relief. Massage is wonderful but the Chiropractic adjustment is essential to get the best results from massage therapy.
Hopefully you find this article helpful and will take these simple to apply tips and put them to good use. If you or someone you care about is suffering from neck pain and is looking for help don’t hesitate to contact our office. We have treated thousands of patients with neck pain and have an outstanding record of success!