Is your neck bothering you now? Is it stiff? Do you have a numb arm? Chronic headaches? If so, you’re in good company. Neck pain affects two-thirds of the population at some point in their lives1.
Virtually all neck pain starts from the soft tissueâ€“the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia (the connective tissue that holds the muscles together). Soft tissue tightens and shortens after an injury, due to postural strain, or just from stress. Then soft tissue literally pulls the bones out of alignment. Eventually, it may even cause the cervical discs to deteriorate. This compression may ultimately impinge on a nerve, causing shooting pain down the arm or numbness.
The soft tissue pulling on the head often causes headaches. Every client I’ve seen who was suffering from headaches also had a tight neck. Inevitability, when the neck released, the headaches would disappear.
Acute and Chronic Causes
Accidents will often cause neck pain. Whiplash injuries from automobile accidents can push the vertebra of the neck backwards, causing you to lose the natural curve in your neck. Strains to the upper back or shoulders will often cause the neck muscles to tighten as they adapt to the injury.
On more long-term basis, poor posture can cause the head to stick forward. Your head weighs a good ten pounds, which ends up being a lot of strain on the muscles doing a job they werenâ€™t designed to do. These muscles were meant to turn the head, not hold it up against gravity. The posture muscles of the neck and back are very small and deep. When our bodies are in balance, these muscles donâ€™t need to work much. They donâ€™t need to be stronger â€“ they need to let go.
Some anatomists claim that some of your neck muscles are secondary breathing muscles. Actually, you are only meant to use these neck muscles in survival situations such as running for your life. If you continue to use these muscles to hold up the shoulders (in an attempt to get more air in the upper lobes of the lungs), you end up with shoulders up around your ears and the appearance of having no neck.
Because of the many layers of muscles and the seven vertebra of the neck, there is a lot of room for maladaptation and tension. Treating the neck pain means regaining suppleness and mobility. If the tightness is recent, a good massage or a chiropractic adjustment might be all you need. If the tension (but not necessarily the pain) had existed for years, you may need to address the chronic tension to treat the recent pain. My recommendation is always start with the easiest, cheapest and quickest treatment, then gradually progress up the treatment scale until you achieve the results you want.
Standard exercise does not usually alleviate the pain. In the short run, there may be some improvement because you are moving your neck. But neck pain is not caused by weak muscles; itâ€˜s caused by tension and misalignment that need to be released.
Over several decades of treating clientsâ€™ neck pain as a Rolfer, Iâ€™ve learned that releasing the chronic tension in the head, neck and upper back does wonders for healing neck pain. For some clients, much of their neck pain comes from their neck adjusting to an imbalance lower in their body. For instance, if one leg is shorter, your back and neck will adjust so your head is level. Years of this adaptation will create strain. You can loosen the neck, but often the pain will continue if the entire body isnâ€™t balanced.
It â€™s amazing how the body can heal when the stress is removed. Your body wants to feel good; it just may need a little help to regain the resiliency you once had.
1According to Allan I. Binder, MD, a rheumatologist who published a 2007 study in the British Medical Association Journal.