I remember the first time I had neck pain. I was 10 or 11 years old and it was accompanied by a headache and upper trap pain. I never equated it to much except maybe growing pains. I stretched here and there and it seemed to help, but in retrospect, that was short-lived.
Fast forward to post-puberty and jump through to college, my neck aches seemed to be more frequent and a nagging nuisance. I went to the chiropractor and it would help in the moment. But it seemed like the pain was back again by the time I got home from my appointment.
Keep fast-forwarding into my 30s and I have two herniated discs in my neck and some weird defect that made it feel like I had a constant frog in my throat. The nerves were so angry that my right arm would actually turn blue and numb if I used it for only a few hours. At this point in my life, I was a full-blown physical therapist and couldn't figure out how to take care of myself.
That led me on my quest to find out why this was happening and how to fix it. So why do necks break down?
The head itself is positioned with more mass in front of your spine rather than centered perfectly on your neck. Whether you believe we were designed this way or evolved into it, there has to be a reason why this is. In my opinion, if our heads were perfectly balanced, we could be like an owl and rotate 360 degrees. So I'll pose the question again, why are our heads so far forward on our neck?
The reason for this design still eludes me. However, I believe I've come to understand why it works. Think of mounting a big screen TV on your wall with a TV mount. I'm sure you can picture the idea of that ripped straight out of the wall at some point. But the foundation of the connection between the TV and the wall somehow defies gravity and works. So in some ways, our head is always collapsing forward like the TV and our muscles and connective tissues fight it to hold it upright.
Going back to my neck pain, I'm so glad I found someone in my 30s to help me resolve it. Who knows what future degeneration in my poor neck would have happened.
So what was I missing back then that I know now? Here's what I wish I knew in my teens and early twenties:
Let's start with bad habits. I harp on bad habits here at Rehab and Revive all the time. Things like sleeping on your side or not having the proper pillows to support your neck and ribcage can be huge no-nos. This kind of habit has you starting and ending the day in a twisted, cock-eyed position. And don't even get me started with sleeping on your stomach. You are in for a wrecked neck. Learning to sleep on my back was hard but fully rewarded with not waking up with a tight, achy neck.
Sleeping posture is important but so is SITTING and STANDING posture. It has to follow-through with all of our daily activities such as lifting weights or pushing a shopping cart. Sitting better during your commute or on road trips and setting yourself up in good posture on a long plane ride all contribute to the stress and strain you put on your neck.
You know you are setting yourself up correctly when you get off the plane or after sitting at work feeling the same way as when you sat down.
Stability and Strength Before Flexibility
Another tip I wish I had known when I first started experiencing neck pain is that I needed stability and strength before flexibility. When something hurts, our first instinct is to stretch it out. But the more you stretch, the more loose it becomes and then there's no foundation. Apply this to your neck and you basically become a bobblehead.
I liken it to a rubberband or bunjee cord that's been overstretched and can't snap back. The elastic tightness that gave it security is the key to having a loose but strong neck. Working on the little muscles in the throat and the neck are key to keeping you pain-free.
A New Way To Move
Everyone should have a plan of how to execute movements safely with less effort. I know it seems dramatic because these are motions you do all the time. But if you think about it, where did you learn all of these motions? Where did your style of movement come from? You modeled it. It's all learn based behavior from our proverbial days as infants. We select certain motion strategies as infants that become more natural as we age.
Take, for instance, in many Asian countries, people squat to go number two. It's natural and those muscles develop to accommodate that kind of movement. But what if what we learned isn't the best way to move? We have to retrain ourselves to move efficiently.
How we choose to move our necks and how we take care of it is likely learned from somewhere or somebody. Creating a whole new movement pattern is harder than changing sleeping habits though. You have to initiate movement from the core and upper trunk. This starts with better trunk extension to move the spine backwards so it can stack up and crest over.
So most of this is physiology mumbo jumbo and you're probably wondering how you're supposed to be able to integrate this information in your daily life. Well never fear, some tools to help you are below!
Here is what I DID AND STILL DO to navigate my pesky neck pain:
I first and foremost committed to body work and annual maintenance visits. In general, I have received about 20 manual therapy sessions per year for the past eight years. Why so many? Well I spend most of my days using my body to be a manual therapist for everybody else. It takes its toll. So if you have a job that's physical demanding (and yes, sitting for extended periods of time is demanding in a non-traditional sense) getting manual treatment is perhaps something you want to look into.
I also made the habit changes listed above and I am faithful with the exercises I need to keep me in tip top shape.
Remember, heal smarter!
Dr. Justin C. Lin