Why is My Neck Stiff?
When it comes to stiff neck muscles and poor posture, it’s a chicken or the egg problem. Yes, you could be experiencing a one-off where you woke up with a stiff neck from an awkward sleeping position. You may have cut off blood circulation to a certain muscle all night long, resulting in a stiff neck. The most common symptoms of a stiff neck include, but are not limited to:
- Hampered mobility, also known as range of motion
- Shooting pain when turning, twisting, or otherwise moving
- Difficulty reaching, lifting, or holding objects
- Bone cracking
- Tight jaw
- Radiating pain and/or numbness throughout the shoulders, arms, and fingers
- Tingling throughout the shoulders, arms, and fingers
- Tension in head and neck
There are also more alarming, much rarer reasons for a stiff neck. However, these are typically paired with secondary symptoms like a sudden high fever or nausea, as is the case of meningitis or HIV infections. Call your doctor if you are experiencing abnormal issues.
More often than not, a stiff neck is a structural consequence of overworked neck muscles. If you are reading this post, stiffness in the neck is probably something you’ve been dealing with for a while. The discomfort could be due to an unfortunate incident like an accident where you experienced whiplash, or a more habitual pattern like texting hunched over, which forces you into an unhealthy position for substantial lengths of time every day. Another instance of repeated motion is a specific sport or activity that you must assume an unnatural position to accomplish. Playing the violin, swimming the crawl, or cradling a phone between your shoulder and ear, are just three examples of actions that demand extreme neck displacement.
Whatever brought you to the place you are in now, your body has compromised its natural alignment to uphold the position you’re choosing to adopt. In a nutshell, the way you hold yourself determines your posture as either:
- Neutral, and therefore “good,” where your ears align with your shoulders, or
- Poor, and therefore causing compensations along the spine that result in stiff or sore neck muscles
The bottom line is this: if you have stiff muscles, you must be out of alignment. A photo of your profile would reveal to what degree you have strayed from the ideal positioning of your spine. The photographic prompt would inform you of what regions of your spine is either falling forward or backwards at an excessive angle. Note that in a neutral position, otherwise known as “good posture”, the spine counts 3 natural curves. These are:
- 2 convex curves at the neck (cervical spine) and lower back (lumbar spine) known as lordosis
- 1 concave curves at the chest (thoracic spine) and, though this one is not counted as part of the S shape, a bonus at the tailbone (sacral spine) known as kyphosis
You may hear the terms lordosis and kyphosis to describe abnormal curvature, but they also apply to the natural setup of the spine.
If you are more of a tactile person, there is also a way to feel proper alignment. Embodying correct posture for a few minutes can help you understand how far you’ve come and where you need to go. Using a Neck Hammock allows you to feel what a neutral position is actually like. Once you somatically understand the misplacement, you will no longer be operating in the dark. The question of how to loosen your neck muscles will enter a logical healing program that you can visualize and commit to.
Why Are My Muscles Stiff?
Neck muscles are in the line of fire when it comes to pain. Not only must they resist the force of gravity like any other skeletal muscle, neck muscles carry the enormous load that is the head and its prized pig, the brain. At rest, neck muscles already bear the weight of the head, which on average weighs 10 to 12 pounds. To make matters worse, every inch that the head falls forward out of alignment can add another 10 pounds to the load adding more tension and strain which can cause chronic neck pain.
The neck is a column of 7 stacked vertebrae that are connected by flexible discs made of fibrocartilage. Adjacent vertebrae are linked (as joints) to make movement possible. The spinal cord runs up the neck, which connects it to the head. Responsible for relaying autonomic, motor, and sensory signals throughout the body, the spinal nerve runs along the spinal cord. The spinal nerve is referred to in the singular, but is more aptly described as a bundle of 31 pairs:
- 8 in the cervical spine (neck)
- 12 in the thoracic spine (torso)
- 5 in the lumbar spine (lower back)
- 5 in the sacral spine (pelvis)
- 1 in the coccyx
With so many nerval ties and endings, the back is a highly sensitive area. Tight muscles can crush and pinch nerves, causing radiating pain and numbness. This is especially true of neck muscles because they are so susceptible to being overworked.
How Do I Loosen My Neck Muscles?
The good news is there are many effective methods to loosening neck muscles. Besides the static practices of applying hot and cold, or seeking help from your doctor, there are exercises you can adopt to both manage and prevent stiff neck muscles.
The answer to the question, “how do I loosen my neck muscles?” is movement. It may seem counterintuitive to you, especially at this very moment as pain shoots through your neck. But, chew on this. Movement comes in different shapes and sizes. Traction, for one, is a seemingly static exercise when seen from the outside. If you were to send a camera inside, however, you would witness significant movement.
A traction device like the Neck Hammock gently pulls apart your bones and soft tissues to create more space in the joints that bring together the cervical vertebrae. Space relieves the pressure that is exerted on your nerves. The two safest forms of cervical traction are:
Manual Cervical Traction
With the patient typically lying on their back, a licensed professional, such as a physical therapist, will cradle a patient’s head and gently pull it away from the neck. Manual cervical traction is a daily practice for chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, and practitioners of Craniosacral therapy. Although the latter usually engage with the synarthrodial joints of the cranium, practitioners may move along the atlanto-occipital joint that connects the base of the skull to the spine.
The Neck Hammock
If neck stress is a daily occurrence for you, a DIY traction device would be ideal. The Neck Hammock is the leading device in the field of at-home cervical traction. Safe and intuitive, the Neck Hammock offers the same relief that you would get with a therapist without the cost and time consumption. The upside is you can do it at your leisure, in the comfort of your own home. The Neck Hammock is easy to use:
- Secure your Neck Hammock around a doorknob and shut the door.
- Adjust the straps to fit your height. Where you rest your head should sit at 2 to 4 inches from the floor.
- Gently lower your head in the cradle and relax into it.
- If you feel pain, the straps could be too tight. Simply loosen them, readjust, and study your reaction. There should be no discomfort at this time. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Neck Hammock gently stretches the neck muscles, relieving tension from the inside out.
Proper exercises fulfil the same promise of spaciousness in the joints. By building muscles in an elongated or “eccentric” position, you mimic the traction-making device. As your muscles gain amplitude, you will manage to maintain the optimal postural position. This progress will allow you to go further in the stretches when using your Neck Hammock. In this way, simple strengthening exercises complement your Neck Hammock.
Moving your neck is probably the last thing you feel like doing when you are experiencing neck pain. However, to feel better you must move to bring blood and other healing liquids, like synovial fluid in joints, to the affected area. Start slow and simple with rolling your shoulders up and back.
- Stand or sit with a straight spine.
- Imagine you are pushing your head into an imaginary hand hovering over you.
- Meditate on your posture photo, and try to adjust your standing position.
- Tuck your chin in to correctly align yourself. Note that the double chin will disappear the more you tuck in. Your muscles and other soft tissues will tighten around the area.
- Gently roll your shoulders. Make sure to complete a full circle, pointing your shoulders to the front of the room, to your ears, to the back of the room, pulling your shoulder blades together at the back, and finally towards the floor.
- Go slow and amplify your range as you warm up.
The same logic as shoulder rolls applies here. Be sure to move gently and in all awareness. Erratic movement does not serve you, it only sounds the alarm in your body to protect itself.
- Stand tall, arms by your side, chin tucked in, head pushing up to the sky.
- Begin by dropping your chin into your chest and rolling gently from side to side.
- Once you have warmed up a bit, increase the range of your rolling.
- Don’t forget to do both sides.
Remember what we said about the nerves connecting at the spinal cord? When you consider your nerves, you can no longer think of one part of your body as divided from another. It’s all one organism. To relieve neck stiffness, you must therefore also address stiffness in adjacent limbs. As we said, it’s all about creating space, which you can easily do by first performing these simple exercises.
- Extend your arms in one line, fingers wide.
- Make sure your elbows are straight. You could already feel a substantial stretch here, so be mindful of what feels good.
- Wiggle your fingers. Do so methodically, as though you were playing the piano.
- Keep wiggling. You are decongesting the pathways your nerves follow.
Now that you know how far your nerves reach, you can understand how important warming up your feet is.
- Throw a bunch of pens on the floor and pick them up with your toes.
- Point and flex your feet, working through the metatarsals.
- Roll your ankles gently. Don’t go overboard with repetitions. A few will do the trick.
Cat Cow Pose
This yoga move strengthens your neck and increases your spine’s range of motion. It is also the ultimate exercise to balance out the strength and flexibility of the front of your body with the backside.
- On all fours, place your palms directly under your armpits.
- Arch your spine as your inhale, look up, chest up.
- Exhale round, tuck your chin and tailbone in.
- Repeat to your heart’s content.
- When you are done, exhale and sit on your heels in Child’s Pose. Extend your arms in front of you, rest your forehead into the floor and breathe.
Touch your Toes
By this time, you should be a little warmed up. Time to stretch out the backside of your body (hamstrings and glutes included) that may be tugging on the muscle chain that connects to your neck.
- Hands over your head, roll down your spine, fingers toward the floor.
- Do not force anything. Let your head hang between your arms. You are rushing blood to your neck.
- Wiggle around, nod your head.
- Slowly, very slowly, roll back up, one vertebra at a time.
- Your head should be the last part of you to come up.
This exercise adds a component to touching your toes. Put simply, you begin by reaching your hands over your head and back, before leaning forward to reach for your feet.
- Standing tall, reach your arms up over your head by way of your sides. This means you progress up with outstretched arms like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
- Clasp your hands together when they meet over your head.
- Look up and arch back on the inhale.
- As you exhale, fall forward and reach for your toes.
- Follow the same protocol as you did to rise out of touching your toes.
Note that most of these exercises can be modified to a seated position.
When your neck muscles are stiff, the last thing you feel like doing is stretching them, or any part of your body for that matter. But the secret to loosening them up is moving. Start with a traction device like Neck Hammock before exploring exercises. The key is to create space in the joints that can become compressed. Your neck is holding the heaviest load there is: your head! It should come as no surprise that the neck suffers from strained muscles, especially when poor posture forces your spine out of alignment.
- Aging backwards by Miranda Esmonde-White
- Forever Painless by Miranda Esmonde White
- The Yoga Bible by Christina Brown