Neck pain is no fun – hence the saying that something (or someone) unpleasant is a “pain in the neck.” No one is immune from occasional neck pain. Have you ever woken up with a stiff neck from sleeping in an awkward position?
Side effects of aging include developing arthritis (inflammation) in the body’s joints, notably osteoarthritis (when the cartilage or cushion between joints breaks down leading to pain, stiffness, and swelling). Poor posture is another major source of neck pain.
Sitting in one position, especially hunched over a desk, or standing for long periods of time on a hard floor take their toll on the body’s natural flexibility.
The human neck (or cervical spine) is the topmost portion of the vertebral column and consists of seven vertebrae. Unlike all the other bones in the spine, the seven cervical vertebrae are all triangular in shape. They have other features that are unique, as well.
The first cervical vertebrae, abbreviated as C1, is called the atlas. The second cervical vertebrae, C2, is known as the axis.
In anatomy, a joint is an area where two bones are attached for the purpose of motion of body parts. Another word used for “joint” is “articulation,” normally composed of fibrous connective tissue and cartilage.
Several conditions can cause neck pain, including:
- Muscle strains (from all sorts of activities ranging from heavy lifting to reading a book at bedtime with your head propped up on a pillow “the wrong way”)
- Worn joints (the body forms sharp bone spurs after the neck joints wear down with age which limit joint motion and create pain)
- Compressed nerves (when herniated disks or bone spurs in the neck vertebrae press on the nerves which branch out from the spinal cord)
- Injuries (such as whiplash after a car crash)
- Illnesses (rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, and cancer are all known to cause neck pain)
Following are my favorite soothing neck exercises. If you are new to stretching and flexing, get your healthcare provider’s approval before diving in.
“The first days are the hardest days,” sang The Grateful Dead in their epic song, “Uncle John’s Band.” This is so true of most exercises – but neck workouts should be fairly easy to tolerate and incorporate into a daily routine.
Regular exercise is important because, like steel, our body starts to “rust” when it sits for too long. It’s always harder to return to a regular fitness program after a layoff so it’s really easier to keep up the good work instead of backing down.
The beauty of neck exercises is that you can do them so many places: sitting in your car waiting for the light to change or at your desk, or while standing in line somewhere or stirring onions on the kitchen stove.
- Neck Rolls
One of the easiest moves to help a stiff neck loosen up begins with lowering the chin to the chest. Then, let the chin lead the head up and to the right in a circular motion. Closing the eyes can help tune into your neck area as it expands and contracts. Perform as many neck rolls as you find comfortable in one direction, then repeat as many repetitions in the other direction.
- Neck Tilt
Also incredibly easy and fantastic-feeling is the neck tilt. Lower your chin to your chest, touching it if you can. Don’t strain. Flexibility will come over time so don’t expect to bend like Gumby from the get-go. Hold your chin toward your chest for 5 seconds, return to the starting position, and repeat this motion for 5-10 times.
- Left-To-Right Neck Turns
This is another simple movement that feels oh-so-good. Breathe in and turn your head to face left as far as possible. Breathe out and turn your head to face right as far as possible. Repeat this pattern of breathing and turning your head left to right 5-10 times.
- Shoulder-To-Shoulder Neck Bends
Start this more challenging exercise by facing directly forward with your chin level. Slowly and very carefully, drop your right ear toward your right shoulder. Keep your eyes facing ahead and don’t let your neck twist up or down. Hold this neck bend for several seconds as you breathe normally. Return your head to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
- Chin Stretch
This exercise tightens sagging chin muscles and relaxes the throat and lower jaw. Start by facing forward. With eyes open or closed, slowly raise your chin and toward the ceiling or sky. Stretch your neck muscles up and over your chin as you bend your head back. Be very careful not to overdo this strengthening exercise.
- The Lion Yoga Pose
You could say I saved the best for last. From a seated position, inhale deeply. Then, all at once, pretend you’re a lion: open your eyes and mouth as wide as possible, extend your tongue as far as possible, stretch you entire head forward to lengthen the neck, and make “claws” by curving and tensing your fingers. Now ROAR!
(If roaring like a lion or lioness is inappropriate at the office, you can skip that part.)
Once you start taking your neck through its paces, pain should ease and, hopefully, go away completely.
If that doesn’t happen, I have gotten a lot of relief from my cervical arthritis from acupuncture and acupressure. Other people have told me they got good results from a chiropractor.