Joint therapy – Neck.
Neck problems can cause all kinds of symptoms, ranging from local pain and stiffness, to headaches, arm pain, numbness in your extremities and diminished function of many of the body’s physiological systems.
One of the most prominent physical concerns of our time is anterior head carriage, which is also referred to as forward head posture (FHP). Too much time seated, working on a computer, driving a car, etc can contribute to this condition, where the body’s muscles become imbalanced, and eventually the spine changes its shape. Ultimately the natural curve of the neck can become reversed and the bones and joints will begin to degenerate. There are numerous reports that would suggest roughly 80-90% of people have some degree of FHP.
I’ve had my own neck discomfort over the years, brought about by faulty alignment as a result of sports and other activities. Most of this has been managed by posture awareness, help from my chiropractor and neck strengthening exercises. Just like the rest of the spine, our necks function much better when they are in neutral alignment while being strong and flexible. This is what I strive for in myself, and in my clients.
Like other parts of the body, a few daily maintenance exercises can help to keep your neck healthy and aligned. Because the neck is very mobile, it’s also relatively susceptible to injury. For this reason always perform a thorough warm-up before activity, and consult your doctor before attempting new exercises. This is especially important if you’ve had a history of any neck pain or injury.
With the prevalence of FHP, it’s important to always be aware of your head position. By keeping your head back on top of your body, with your ears aligned above your shoulders, you can reduce the gradual onset of FHP and the many problems that come with it. One easy way to train your body to know what good alignment feels like is to use a wall as a guide. Many times each day I’ll back up to a wall and check/reinforce my neck and head alignment. For this exercise, start with your heels 3-6” from the base of the wall and make sure that you have your hips, shoulder blades and head in contact with the wall. Use your core muscles to stabilize your lower back into a slight curve, roughly the thickness of your hand. Once you reach a tall, upright alignment, with your head back against the wall, work to keep your head in neutral, with your chin down and eyes looking straight ahead. Hold for 10-15 seconds, take a breath, exhale and try to stretch a bit taller. Complete this 2 or 3 times for a total stretch of 45-60 seconds.
Multi-directional neck stretching
Many people have lost significant range of motion in their necks, which leads to muscle imbalance and poor function. If they had only maintained a simple range of motion program over the years, they’d still be able to shoulder-check while driving! To keep healthy movement in your neck, start in neutral alignment with your head level. From this neutral position, slowly turn your head as far as you can to the left, to look over your left shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds before turning to right for 10 seconds. Return to neutral and lean your left ear over toward your left shoulder. You should feel a stretch down the right side of your neck. Hold for 10 seconds, then take your head up and over, leaning to your right shoulder and feeling a stretch on the left side. Return to neutral before turning your head 45˚ to the left and tipping your chin toward your left armpit. Hold for 10 seconds, lift to neutral, then repeat to the right side. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your body in good postural alignment throughout.
Multi-directional neck strengthening
Over the years I’ve noticed that my own neck comfort and function is best when I keep my neck muscles strong. To do this I often use the resistance of my hand against my head, but using a towel also works very well if you loop the towel over your head and hold the ends in your hand. Starting from a neutral position, with your tongue anchored at the roof of your mouth for greater muscular recruitment, apply very gentle resistance as you work your head and neck through controlled ranges of motion, in a variety of directions including flexion, extension, lateral flexion and even rotation. The movements should be slow and deliberate to start, only progressing when you’re feeling confident and strong. Try 5-10 repetitions in each direction, focusing on alignment and quality of movement. Don’t forget to breathe!
–Rob Williams is a Vancouver based multi-business owner in the health and fitness industry. He is an entrepreneur, health and fitness columnist, presenter, inventor, athlete, father, prominent downtown vancouver personal trainer, coach and mentor to many young athletes in the North Shore community. www.williamshealthgroup.com