Pain in your neck can be a real pain in your backside and turn a good day into one that may be nearly intolerant. Whether it be sleeping wrong, overworking your neck muscles or spending too much time in front of the computer or texting, the muscles in your neck will eventually materialize causing pain making you the only one in the room whose neck can’t turn.
Today’s column completes a series about the importance of a strong and flexible spine, lower back, pelvis, hips and, today, the neck. The anatomy of our spine was outlined in “The Pinnacle of Engineering,” the second in the series. In brief: The spine is made up of 33 bones divided into five sections: seven cervical, 12 thoracic, five lumbar, five sacral and four coccygeal. Between each vertebra are 23 discs with six in the cervical, 12 in the thoracic and five in the lumbar. The five sacral and four coccygeal vertebrae are fused.
Of the seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, C1 is the atlas supporting your skull just as the mythical Atlas held the earth on his shoulders, and C2, the axis, providing the ability to turn your head side to side. The primary muscles of the neck are the levator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid and deep cervical flexors, all of which work together to rotate your head from side to side, tilt it up and down and raise your shoulders. The suboccipitals, connect the top of your cervical spine to the base of the scull helping to pull your head backwards and rotate your neck.
Two extremely important core muscle supporting the neck are the trapezius, aka “traps,” and erector spinae. The V-shaped traps help stabilize your spine providing shoulder and upper back strength supporting your posture, while also assisting with shoulder and arm movement. The erector spinae, located in the cervical spine, helps support your posture, rotate your neck and extend it backward.
Neck pain is often caused by muscle strain. “Text neck,” as the name implies, is a result of spending too much time looking down at our phones. According to a Pennsylvania State University study, the average person in the United States spends approximately 10.5 hours per day on their smartphones, computers, video games, radios, tablets and TVs. Poor posture will also cause neck pain. When our spines are not properly aligned, our body must compensate to hold it upright. If your shoulders and back are rounded, your lower back will exaggerate its curve, knees hyperextend backwards and your neck will be pushed forward.
More serious conditions include cervical spinal spondylosis, spinal stenosis, herniated discs and neck injuries, such as whiplash. Symptoms of such conditions may include sharp pain in your arm and/or shoulder, feeling numbness, pins and needles, weakness in your arm and pain that worsens when moving your head.
Cervical spondylosis, also known as cervical osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease, is a condition involving changes to the bones, discs, and joints within the neck. Whether we like it or not, the changes are primarily caused by the wear and tear of aging where the discs break down and lose fluid, in turn limiting the range of motion and tightening muscles. Cervical spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck that can compress the spinal cord and/or nerves.
A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the nucleus within a disc breaks through putting pressure on the nerve root or spinal cord. As disc degeneration continues, it may break down entirely leaving little to no space between the vertebrae. A collapsed disc is a disc that loses its height most often due to compression in the spine as we age. Whiplash is a neck injury due to the forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck and are commonly caused by rear-end car accidents.
The key to avoiding neck pain is maintaining a strong core, particularly your lats and erector spinae, and flexibility throughout your torso. Exercises such as Pilates, will strengthen and lengthen your core muscles improving your posture, stability, balance and flexibility. Fortunately, neck strain can often be relieved with icing, heat and light stretching. However, should you have more serious neck conditions such as those above, don’t lose hope.
Working with your doctor, you may be able to relieve some pain and possibly become pain-free. At one point my neck was in nearly constant pain and it had about 30 percent range of motion. With a couple years of hard work along with some chiropractic realignment, I once again have nearly 100 percent mobility. Be sure to first consult with your health care provider before beginning any exercise program.
The common thread among this series has been maintaining a strong core and your flexibility to support a healthy spine, pelvis and hips. In doing so, when you walk into the room, you will make every head turn when they see that little shake in your hips, your posture tall and confidence high. And you will be able to turn you head and give them a wink.
Sherrie Hebert is a certified personal trainer and certified Pilates mat and equipment instructor. She teaches and trains at Performance Pilates and Gold’s Gym of Pocatello. You may contact her at 208-317-5685 or email@example.com for all health and wellness needs.