If you’re asking yourself “do neck exercises really work,” you can’t have had much luck with them to-date. You wouldn’t be asking the question if you’d known success with exercises that promise to alleviate neck pain and correct your posture. That’s right: posture has a whole lot to do with neck pain. When it comes to managing pain in the cervical spine, simple exercises that specifically target neck muscles are only part of the equation.
Where Does Neck Pain Come From?
Neck pain is as diverse as the people who suffer from it and happens for a very wide variety of reasons. Here are a few common explanations for neck pain:
While some causes follow an unfortunate event, like an accident where your neck was hyperextended in a whiplash motion, most cases of neck pain stem from repeated and habitual misalignment of the spine and head. These are occupational injuries that can be corrected with lifestyle changes.
When you sleep at a funky angle, you may be starving a muscle of blood, resulting in stiffness upon waking. The reason that your neck is more prone to stiffness than, say, your leg or your hand, is the combination of two factors inherent to its role:
A Structural Problem
Stacked like blocks atop one another, the vertebrae meet as joints connected by discs made of fibrocartilage. The spine is thus flexible enough to adapt to changes in the environment underfoot. This is true of the upper spine, too. Like most joints, the vertebrae of the neck possess impressive mobility that leaves room for error. Hypermobility becomes dangerous when it is attached to a heavy load that can easily pull the neck into a position that is structurally not sound.
Why is Neck Pain So Common?
Relatively skinny for the job, the neck is constantly carrying the astounding 10 to 12 pounds that the average adult head weighs. Even in sleep, especially if you are not supporting your head and spine in correct alignment, the neck must bear the heavy load of your head. Traction devices, like Neck Hammocks, offer much-needed relief from neck strain. An at-home traction device saves you from having to see a chiropractor or physical therapist which can be very pricey.
The neck is also particularly prone to pain because it houses the spinal cord, rich with nerves. Tight muscles compress these highly sensitive and far-reaching nerves. This is why you may feel pain in your neck, and numbness in your fingers; seemingly unrelated, the two are in fact complementary discomforts. Effective neck stretches create space in the vertebrae’s joints so as not to crush nerves and other soft tissue. Creating and maintaining space between the joints could be a definition of stretching in general. Truly, the goal of stretching is twofold:
- to avoid the painful consequences of compression like pinched or crushed nerves
- to keep at bay the degeneration of disc cartilage due to grinding vertebrae
What is the Relation Between Posture and Neck Pain?
Poor posture and neck discomfort are one and the same problem. Alignment is the name of the game. Let us first consider what proper alignment looks like before delving into poor posture.
What is Good Posture?
Despite the structural challenges of being human and healthy, when aligned the spine is a perfectly engineered edifice. The spine boasts three natural curves that allow for shock absorption and healthy weight administration. From the side, the curves come together in the shape of an S, located at:
- The neck, or cervical spine
- The chest, or thoracic spine
- The lower back, or lumbar spine
Considered “normal” and anatomically necessary, the spine’s curvature is one of a kind. The pelvis is referred to as “neutral” when functionally aligned. The ideal position for the pelvis is a 30-degree angle at the cross of two imaginary lines:
- a vertical axis extending from the sacrum, and
- a horizontal one drawn along the heads of the femur bones.
What is Poor Posture?
While an average spine ought to display an intact S shape, other or excessive renditions of this curvature exist. In these cases, the spine’s misplacement tugs at the soft tissues that fill the skeletal frame, causing strain and pain. The three most common renditions of poor posture are:
- Swayback: shoulders and chin fall back further than the hips. Tipped forward at an extra 10 degrees, the pelvis is pushed forward, leading the charge. It is common for pregnant women to adopt this stance to counterbalance the weight of the baby they carry in the front. Teenagers with a “bad attitude” also tend to embody the posture.
- Hyperlordosis: related to but not solely resulting in swayback, hyperlordosis presents an exaggerated lumbar curve.
- Hyperkyphosis: colloquially known as the “hunchback,” hyperkyphosis happens in the thoracic region of the spine. Sometimes called “Head Forward,” the position of the neck forces the head towards the ground. In order to see, the head is lifted in resistance to the curve. Also called “texting neck,” the posture strains the neck’s muscles and soft tissues, but also grinds the aforementioned fibrocartilage of the discs together at an unnatural angle. With time, the cartilage wear leads to the painful condition that is osteoarthritis.
All three of these conditions involve a deviation that is either forward-heavy or backward-leaning. Scoliosis, on the other hand, usually has to do with an abnormal curve on the lateral plane. Furthermore, scoliosis is not usually an occupational injury or misalignment but is a condition that a person is born with.
How Do I Get Rid of Neck Pain?
Habitual or not, every deviation from the aforementioned S curve causes imbalances throughout the muscles, straining the tendons that connect them to each other, and the ligaments that link bones. This can cause chronic neck pain, but there are countless stretches and simple exercises that can relieve your pain.
Balancing Muscle Groupings
Muscles function in pairs, the antagonist has its agonist muscle. When one is flexing, the other relaxes. In the case of Sway Back, the front facing hip muscles (hip flexors) will be weak but the muscles facing the back (hamstrings) will be overly strong and tight. The area of operation can be even smaller than this: while the upper abdominals will be tense, the lower abdominals will be weak. An exercise plan to correct the imbalances would address them by:
- Building weak muscles
- Stretching tight muscles
Of course, not all exercise plans get the job done. Training or therapy that targets a single muscle will, by definition, worsen the posture problem. As we have seen, building the agonist muscle without tending to its shadow antagonist is a recipe for imbalance and further discomfort. Paired with incorrect positioning, the skeletal structure alters its frame to compensate for these muscular imbalances. Before you know it, the entire system, from bones to ligaments, tendons to muscles, and fascia to cartilage, has been compromised.
With time, the compensating position becomes habitual. Only pain reminds us that what we feel is a “neutral” stance is in reality hurting us. The Neck Hammock is invaluable when it comes to body awareness. The relief you feel when using the traction device will reveal to you how far you have moved away from a technically neutral position.
Holistic Training Plans
Effective workouts respect the duality of muscle pairs. A corrective program that will produce results should emphasize balancing these opposing forces first. Strength is striking a balance between agonist and antagonist muscles. Yoga, for example, tends to work muscles as a collective. Balance is actually a direct translation of the word “yoga.” Each posture has been tested by time and the verdict is clear: yoga works.
The key to any stretching regimen is going slowly so your body has a chance. Expecting to do the splits overnight is unrealistic, and frankly dangerous. This isn’t to say you couldn’t reach that goal with some time. Depending on your fitness level and age, your progress will grow with dedication. The good news is that reversing poor posture takes less effort than doing the splits.
Neck Stretches That Work—Promise!
The following list introduces training methods that successfully stretch the neck. As is the case with anything, practice makes perfect. Reversing a learned posture that is not serving the body’s function requires building muscles that, like the taut ropes of a propped-up tent, maintain the space necessary for safe passage.
A Note of Caution
Ask your doctor before you begin. As we said before, slowly building to where you want to be is paramount to success when exercising. If you force anything and hurt yourself, you’re back to square 1—or worse. Adding weights to exercises that were not designed to bear the extra burden poses a risk of injury, especially when you are trying to alleviate pain in an area as sensitive as the neck.
To maximize your stretching capacities, warm up your muscles with heat compresses beforehand. You can also choose to jump into a hot shower. Both will increase the flow of blood to your muscles, lending a helping hand to the stretching process.
Try neck and shoulder rolls under the shower head. Moving pushes blood through your body. Moving under hot water maximizes the effect.
As we have mentioned, traction devices like the Neck Hammock create the much-desired space we need to function without pain or discomfort. Stretching builds muscles eccentrically, which is to say in a lengthened position that maintains the space we seek between joints. Concentric contraction we will want to avoid, as it shortens muscles. The bulky, tight muscles that are built concentrically perpetuate the problems that result in pain and discomfort. Yoga is the preeminent resource for exercises that utilize eccentric contraction.
If you harbor hesitations about yoga, know that most effective and sustainable fitness techniques out there are built upon it. You may not even know that an exercise you have adopted into your repertoire is in fact yoga. Widely implemented for posture correction and strength training, isometric exercises like the Plank are yogic exercises. Other exercises typically employed to reverse poor posture are:
Cat Cow Pose
Loosen up and strengthen your back and abdominals with this perfect posture pose.
- On all fours, push into the floor with your palms as you keep your elbows straight.
- Your back should be as straight as you can make it, knees bent at a 90 degree angle with the floor.
- Inhale as you arch your back, look up to the ceiling, pointing your pelvis towards the ceiling.
- Exhale and curl into your chest, drop your chin, round your back.
- Repeat, matching inhales with the cow’s position, and exhales with the cat’s rounded back. Try to make the transition seamless. Smooth movements require more control ergo more strength.
Stretch out your abdominals and strengthen your upper back with this powerful exercise.
- Lay on your stomach, legs extended on the floor behind you.
- Push your palms flat into the ground under your armpits.
- Raise your chest up, look up to the ceiling.
- Check that your shoulders stay low, not by your ears.
- Extend your arms fully, or modify the exercise by coming onto your forearms.
- Breathe deeply in the stretch.
- Lower yourself with care.
- Lie on your stomach.
- Place your palms flat on the ground directly below your armpits
- Tuck your toes as you would for a push-up
- Position your shoulder blades back and down to keep tension away from your neck
- Make your body rigid, like a—you guessed it!—plank
- Push into your palms and extend your arms
Downward Facing Dog
Add to the Plank’s benefits a thorough leg stretch. You may not think your neck shares much of a relation with your legs, but remember we are dealing with muscle chains. When one muscle is overly tight, especially a large one like your hamstrings, the entire chain is tugged out of alignment.
- Begin in a Plank.
- Raise your hips up to the ceiling, your tailbone should be the tip of a triangle.
- Sit back into your heels, knees and elbows straight.
- If you can, flatten your palms as well.
- Push away from your hands into your heels.
- You can walk your heels in place to loosen up the position.
- Don’t fret if your heels are not touching the ground. With time, the back of your legs will loosen up.
From traction to yoga, and eccentric contraction to isometric exercises, neck stretches and strengthening exercises come in all shapes and sizes. Combine them or pick out your favorite and you’ll be sure to find some relief from neck pain.