A right pain in the neck!
Upper back and neck pains take second place on the list of most common issues I treat each week.
A “crick” in the neck, as we always called a neck spasm, can totally immobilise the upper third of the spinal column, so much so that you look and feel quite robotic as you twist and turn your entire body just to look around. Not as funny as it sounds and quite dangerous if it stops you checking your blind-spots when driving!
Sufferers often don’t get much relief when they sleep as it can be very difficult to find a comfortable position. Lack of sleep only adds to the problem as much of our healing takes place while we rest.
What causes neck pain? Cold draughts? Occasionally yes, but not by themselves. You’d need to already have a build-up of tension, waiting to be triggered.
Posture? Again, yes this is a factor but it’s a two-way street as short-tight neck muscles affect the natural healthy curvature of the spine. It’s not as simple as straightening up and pulling your shoulders back. Good posture comes easy when we are loose and aligned. If we have to force it, there’s something wrong.
Pillows or sleeping in a bad position? A definite factor, but as before, it has to be already primed for spasm. Kids can fall asleep in the back of the car with their heads on the seat beside them and still wake up just fine. If our muscles were as supple, the same would apply to us. Until you get them loosened up, a neutral sleeping position is ideal, on your back with one pillow, or on your side with one to two at most. One client of mine slept with five!!
So, what are common root causes of our muscle tension and skeletal misalignment?
Physically intense or repetitive activity, usually over a period of time can do it. People who spend much of their time looking down, perhaps at a desk, an engine or even the people they are working on, like me, are prone to neck tension. The average human head weighs 11 pounds. That’s a hefty load to hold for hours! I’m seeing more cyclists as the sport becomes more popular. The competitive cyclists body position is aerodynamically ideal but brutal for the neck and you can imagine the necks of rugby players who put their heads where you shouldn’t put a boot.
More commonly, mental stress creates physical tension. This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, nervous breakdown level of stress. It’s mostly seen in people with very active minds. It’s as if the neck muscles are overworked from carrying all the thoughts, plans or worries. They “carry the weight of the world on their shoulders” as if it were a physical load. In conjunction with the physical treatment, I recommend various mindfulness practices such as breathwork, body-scans and letting-go in such cases.
Emotional stress plays a part too. Just look at the body language of somebody who is “stressed out” to see hunched shoulders, clenched jaws, tight neck muscles and stiff posture. This clearly demonstrates how our emotional state directly affects our physical condition.
What can be done?
If it totally locks up, a heat-pack is your first port of call to help relax the spasmed muscles – think of how you tense up when cold but relax when you sink into a warm bath. Then find the most comfortable position to rest your head. Don’t fight or force it. Anti-inflammatory gels and medication can help short-term but will probably not treat the root cause.
If you do need treatment, neuromuscular therapy is excellent for easing the spasm and helping to realign the thoracic and cervical vertebrae. This is done by releasing their supporting muscles that may be pulling them off-line through trigger point therapy and myofascial release, all at a gentle pressure that is within the client’s comfort range. The neck is too sensitive for anything more.
The scalene muscles, in particular, that run from under the collarbone to either side of the neck bones are major players in neck pain and cervical alignment issues. They happen to run over the brachial plexus, a major network of nerves that exit the spine at the neck and run to the face, head, upper-back, shoulders, chest, arms and hands. One of these nerves, if pinched by tight scalene muscles, is a very common cause of headaches, vertigo and referred pain, numbness or tingling to the areas mentioned.
I’ve seen excellent results in treating headaches, even in extreme migraine cases where clients had gone so far as having brain scans to identify the cause. I’ve also often treated clients with the wrist and hand symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome by treating their neck and upper back. Shoulder, chest and upper back pain, hand pain and pins and needles are other symptoms of brachial plexus impingement.
Neck pain is just that – a pain in the neck, a nuisance, an annoyance that is not life-threatening but certainly reduces our quality of life and one we simply do not have to put up with in most cases. We can lighten the load, ease the tension, rebalance and realign if we prioritise our health and choose self-care.