It’s a common sight, walk through an office full of cubicles and you will see multiple people with their chin forward, shoulders slumped, straining their eyes and some may even be rubbing their necks and shoulders due to tightness. Neck pain and tightness is so common that thousands and thousands of dollars are spent a year on lotions, serums, contraptions, and conditioning, with little thought put into normalizing posture and mobility; while gaining stability withinthat correct posture.
In our previous two blogs, we have addressed the tightness of hips and shoulders, as a result of poor sitting posture and lack of overall movement throughout the day. Muscle imbalances, in both the shoulders and hips, can change overall posture throughout time, all the way up to the neck. In this post, we will address muscles that directly attach to the cervical spine (neck) with a few stretches that help restore normal tissue extensibility and normal curvature of the cervical spine.
Ideal neck alignment involves a reversal of the curve of your mid back to create the “C” curve of your neck that supports your head. As gravity works against us all day, the weight of your head drifts forward and down, stressing the muscles which lead from your shoulders to your skull, and shortening the muscles at the base of your skull. The constant lengthening or shortening of muscles, can result in trigger points or knots in your upper back, neck and shoulder muscles, as well as, other long term issues resulting from pressure changes on the spine itself. These changes can result in degeneration within and between the vertebrae, compression or impingement of nerves, headaches, and pain into your arms and hands.
- As a fair warning, and to do my due delligence as a Doctor of physical therapy, it is important to note that not all neck issues can be easily addressed and resolved by self-stretching and mobilization. Some issues may actually be made worse by the exercises below. If you have been involved in a car accident, had a fall, suffered from whiplash or a concussion, have high blood pressure (>160/95), are experiencing dizziness, or have an active systemic or inflammatory condition that accompanies your neck pain, you should seek medical attention before doing any sort of self-treatment. This ensures there is no serious condition that needs immediate attention.
The following stretches can be done easily at your desk. They are intended to reverse the tension you create throughout the day by answering emails, making phone calls and generally not treating your body as a significant part of your daily life.
The first stretch is to relieve tension in the 3 part muscle that runs on the side of your neck and deep below your collar bone and shoulders to attach to your ribs.
First put your right arm behind your back or hang on to the bottom of a chair while sitting.
Next tilt your head to the left, acting as if to touch your left ear to your left shoulder. At this point you should feel a stretch, you can tweak the stretch by leaning your head back slightly.
Repeat on both sides holding for 30 secs on each side.
Upper Trap Stretch
The upper trapezius muscles are a common place to hold tension with the stress and anxiety of the day becoming tighter as our head migrates forward throughout the day.
In order to start the stretch, begin just as you did in the previous stretch.
Now, add the movement of rotating your head to look toward the same arm pit. At this point you can add a bit of overpressure with the same sided hand.
Repeat on both sides holding for 30 secs.
Again none of these movements should cause a sharp pain or radiating pain down the shoulder or arm.
After stretching out some of the global muscles that attach to your neck, it is now time to retrain stabilizing muscles to hold your head in a proper position and build muscular endurance.
This funny and even unflattering move helps to restore the natural curve of your cervical spine and elongate the muscles right below the base of your skull, the suboccipitals. When these muscles get tight they notoriously cause head aches, and even dizziness, as they constrict and aggravate nerves that run through these small muscles.
For an easy exercise at your desk or while driving, start with your shoulders down and relaxed, eyes straight forward.
For a variation of this movement, or if you seem to have a hard time getting the correct pattern, roll a towel loosely and place behind your head as you lie on your back.
These three exercises, when done throughout the day, can help relieve muscle tightness in the neck and also prevent further postural changes that can lead to degenerative issues in the future. Don’t let your work be a pain in the neck!
“Listen to your body, it’s smarter than you”
Breathe, Smile, Slow Down
Often muscle pain and tightness, is not just a mechanical issue. These problems are exacerbated by stress, a negative and ill-fitted work environment, lack of time to relax and even not taking deep breaths throughout the day.
As cheesy as it sounds, smiling, laughing, and even hugging (yep, no hand shakes here) are shown to release endorphins that can relax muscles and reduce pain.
For a more long-term life style change, find an activity that relaxes you and you look forward to taking part in. Yoga is an excellent mode of physical activity for all age groups and emphasizes deep breath, stretching, and is one heck of a strength workout.
Without committing to a life of ohm, start with taking a step away from your desk. Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed, think about a beautiful place or person you love, maybe even listen to some music. This little break will re-set you for the day and get you out of your normal daily position and routine. With this break, followed by the stretches above, you are well on your way to removing those golf ball-sized knots from your upper back and neck. Your body will thank you.