One of the most common muscle problems I see with men and women alike, is SUPER tight neck muscles. Shoulders and neck muscles are like tightly banded cords, leading to headaches, shoulder pain, pins and needles in the arms and other uncomfortable symptoms.
In most people this has to do with modern lifestyles and activities which emphasise the muscles at the front of the body and lead to muscle imbalances. Most often in life we’re bending forward over a computer, sitting and leaning forward to read or sew or study or other jobs or activities that emphasise forward bending movements (flexion) rather than straightening up and using back muscles (extension).
You might find you’re peering forward intent on your computer screen, leading with your chin and contracting neck muscles in a “poking” movement (less attractively known as chicken neck). This forward head posture puts a great deal of stress on the small neck muscles and pulls all other surrounding muscles out of balance.
A simple trick you can do to check whether you have forward head posture, is to stand back against a wall. Keep your hips relaxed, feet out slightly from the wall and then press your shoulder blades and back of your head against the wall. If you feel that you’ve just grown a fourth chin and that it feels difficult and unnatural –chances are you have forward head posture and possibly some if not all of the associated “headaches” listed above.
While there are several important strengthening exercises you can do to create balance in your body by focusing on extension movements including all kinds of rowing movements (bent over rows, band rows, renegade rows) and chin-ups (assisted are still great), today I’d like to concentrate on some stretches and exercises you can do to relieve neck tension and to begin to re-align your head with your spine, simply and easily.
It won’t happen overnight but it will happen! Chances are you’ve spent years cultivating your current posture so it’ll take time and lots of awareness and stretching to correct now. Anatomically correct posture has us standing feet hip width apart, knees softly relaxed, as is the pelvis. Shoulder blades are drawn down and slightly together creating a little tension in the upper back. Chest is open and “proud” with plenty of space between the ribs and the hips. The head slides back so that there is length in the back of the neck with ears stacked over shoulders. Arms hang loosely and hands rest alongside the “side seams of your pants”.
In that “best posture” stance we’ll practise sliding the head back to sit directly over the shoulders to create a lengthening in the neck. Please note this is NOT a tucking of the chin to create triple chins – it’s a slide much as a tortoise pulls its head in. So instead of being a chicken you can be a turtle! Hmm, too many fun choices! We can also do this exercise lying in bed gently pushing the head back into the pillow to stretch those tight neck muscles. Be very slow and gentle – repeat up to 10 times. Your focus should be a lengthening of the back of the neck while trying to gently push the back part of your skull into the pillow, it’s not just tucking your chin in. Gently push your head down into the pillow and hold for up to 5 seconds and then relax completely. Repeat.
An easy stretch to work on during your day when neck pain strikes, either at home or at your desk is to sit up tall and gently allow your ear to drop down towards your shoulder stretching the opposite side of your neck. Allow that stretch to ease tension a little (about 10 secs) and then slowly and carefully turn your head to look over the back of your shoulder. You’ll feel this now easing into the muscles at the front and side of your neck and throat. Hold for approx 10secs and carefully return your head to starting position, then to look down at the front of your shoulder, back to starting position and repeat on the other side.
And a great chest opener that will rest your upper back from all of that bending over, and open up the front of the body is a simple lying stability ball stretch. You can of course do these exercises with a foam roller too! Lie backwards over a stability ball or a couple of vertically stacked pillows, keeping the head fully supported and allow both arms to spread wide and drop down allowing the chest muscles to stretch. Point your fingers and flex your hands continuously. If you experience pins and needles you may be suffering Thoracic Outlet Syndrome – not as scary as it sounds and easily treated by a good myotherapist and loads of stretching. Those pins and needles you’re feeling are a result of some nerve impingement most commonly related to poor posture and a rounded chest.
If you spend a lot of time at a computer – this exercise is a must! Do it daily and you’ll soon feel a real improvement through your neck and shoulders.
If you’re stretching and strengthening and not getting results Guru Rick Kaselj has an AWESOME program How to Fix your Shoulder Pain. I LOVE these programs and use them extensively with my clients – they’re a unique online program in their breadth of information and effective techniques and are ridiculously cost effective compared to a physical therapist who may or may not actually help you. If you have neck and shoulder pain you NEED to look at this program and then USE it!