Why is My Neck Stiff?
It’s hard to turn a day around when you wake up with a stiff neck. You haven’t even left the house and you’re already having a bad day. The slightest movement makes you wince. You can’t properly see because looking down sends shooting pain up your head and neck. We’ve all been there. It’s no fun to start the day like that. It’s no fun to end it that way either, after 8 hours of staring at a computer screen. Whether morning or evening, the common denominator you will notice with neck stiffness is threefold. You have effectively kept your neck:
- in stillness
- out of alignment
- for hours on end
But what exactly do we mean by alignment?
What is Proper Alignment?
It’s quite simple. You know the evolution of man meme? Four silhouettes stand in a line: Monkey, Caveman, Homo sapiens, and then some iteration of our modern selves. The last character can be hunched over at a computer, or a guy texting. The point is to emphasize how poor our posture has become; how we are in effect reversing evolution and looking more like the monkey than anyone else in the lineup of our own story.
The S Curve
While our rejection of this modern archetype manifests a concern for aesthetics, the judgement is rooted in functionality—or rather, dysfunctionality. Unlike monkeys whose hips are not made to stand upright for extended periods of time, humans are designed to uphold a straight spine. Granted, there are three major curves to the human spine:
- one at the cervical spine
- one at the thoracic spine
- one at the lumbar spine
Together, these natural curves come together in the shape of an S, if you were to apprehend the spine in the sagittal plane. The pelvic region is another curve to consider, but it is rarely counted as such because its addition would take away from the anatomical S shape; a squiggle does not lend itself to memory as well as that “S” for “spine.”
A Supple Structure
The spine’s natural curvature allows for effective weight distribution and motor control. Negotiating loss of balance is one of its greatest features. Like Japanese buildings engineered to withstand earthquakes, the spine is designed for shock absorption. The fibrocartilage that connects the vertebrae in the form of discs guarantees this much-needed flexibility. Like Aesop’s Reed, the spine is resilient because it is supple.
The supple structure protects what it encases, namely the spinal nerve. Stacked like Legos, the vertebrae of the neck house the supreme nerve that runs along the spinal cord. With the immensely important job of relaying sensory signals to and from the brain, the spinal nerve is a collection of 31 pairs of nerves. 8 of these 31 pairs live in the cervical spine, also known as your neck. However, the majority is reserved for the thoracic spine, or torso, which boasts 2 sets of 12 nerves that mirror each other, one on each side of the spine. The upper back is thus highly sensitive and prone to pain or strain.
Aligned for Strength
All this to say that there is a lot more to posture than good looks. The human body is engineered to withstand tremendous weight, pressure, and stress. We’ve seen the photos of women in India carrying inconceivably heavy loads atop their heads. The compression can’t be good for their spines, yet they are able to do it with seeming ease because they keep the cargo in alignment with a straight back.
What Can I Do About a Stiff Neck?
Reversing the issue begins with uncovering the root of the problem. If stillness results in stiffness, it follows that movement must relieve it. Similarly, if misalignment makes matters worse, seek alignment.
Stretching aligns by creating space in the joints. To ease into it, give these relaxation techniques a whirl before you start exercising. For future reference, there are also some preventative measures you can adopt in your daily life.
Taking breaks at work helps keep neck stiffness and tightness at bay. Be mindful of what activities you choose to perform during this precious break. Hunching over to text is arguably worse than the position you were in when working on your computer. Go on a walk, jump rope, do a headstand, or a dozen jumping jacks. However aerobic you are feeling, moving will beset oncoming neck stiffness.
Before you try the following exercises, take a hot shower or apply a heat compress to your stiff spot. Heat therapy increases blood circulation by dilating blood vessels. 10 minutes under hot, pressurized water can work wonders for a stiff neck and tight muscles. Baths help too, but they are usually more effective for soreness below the collar bone, unless you have a hot tub that fills up to the chin.
Another helpful tool to complement neck stretches is a traction device that reduces the compression you may be experiencing in your neck. As the leading at-home traction device available to the general public, the Neck Hammock allows you to experience the relief of traction on your own time. Typically, you would make an appointment with your chiropractor, physical therapist, or massage therapist for them to use the traction method to gently pull your head away from your shoulders to get a good neck stretch. The Neck Hammock gives you the tools to do so in the comfort of your own home, to your heart’s content. The process is safe and use-friendly:
- Loop the tail of your Neck Hammock over a doorknob.
- Shut the door and make sure you lock it. You don’t want anyone yanking the door, and as a result, your neck.
- Adjust the straps to best fit your needs. For most people, the cradle works best when resting 2-4 inches off the ground. Note that the Neck Hammock obeys the laws of physics, so make sure to gage how lax or tight you need the straps to carry your weight.
- Relax your head into the Neck Hammock, releasing all tension and feel your head and neck pain melt away.
- It may take you a couple tries to get the strap length right, but once it is set you can fully relax into the position and enjoy the deep stretch and other benefits that the device has to offer.
Neck Stretches for a Stiff Neck
As we said before, if you can limber up beforehand with a hot shower or a Neck Hammock session, do. If not, move slowly when entering your neck stretch. Tearing or pulling a muscle is not your goal, nor should it ever be. Begin with slow neck and shoulder rolls.
Make sure to continuously move along in a circular motion. Often, people cut the roll short by skipping the chin tuck portion. They will let the head hang back, but not forward. Think of your nose as the hand of a clock ticking along, passing every second before progressing to a passing number.
- Stand tall, feet hip-width apart, feet parallel to each other.
- Think of the Evolution of Man meme, and which silhouette you’d like to embody.
- Close your eyes.
- Nod “yes,” up and down, then slowly shake your head “no” from side to side to release the tightness causing your neck and shoulder pain.
- Dip your chin into your chest. This may be painful, but move through it. Remember what we said about stiffness and stillness; movement is the key.
- Begin by rolling your neck from side to side, from one shoulder to the other.
- Bring your awareness to the back of your neck. Release any tension in the area. Observe how your head will sink lower into your chest.
- Like the needle of your dashboard’s speedometer, follow an arc with your head. Lead with your eyes to the ceiling, to the corners of the room, and back down to the floor. It helps to visualize a circle instead of blindly throwing your head around.
- If this is too ambitious for you at this time, support your head with your hands. You will still increase blood flow to the area this way.
- The stiffness should decrease with repetition.
The same idea goes for Shoulder Rolls. Draw a full circle, not a half moon.
- Begin with a neutral spine and good posture.
- Let your arms relax by your sides.
- Straight back, pelvis and chin slightly tucked.
- Push your shoulders forward, then up to your shoulders, behind your ears. Finally, pull your shoulders back and down towards the floor.
- Be sure to push your shoulders down in the final position, as this motion counteracts the typically tense position most people hold throughout the working day.
As we’ve seen, nerves connect back to the spine. They have impressive reach, like the tentacles of an octopus, running along your limbs all the way to your extremities. Think of nerves as an intricate network of highways. When a lane is closed because of an accident or construction, there’s a direct impact on traffic. Cars must slow down, and sometimes even stop. When a tight muscle crushes a nerve’s passageway, the communication slows or even stops. Hence numbness in the extremities, when the “car” is unable to reach its destination because of the “traffic.” If we manage to open the lanes up, the cars will get through and the congestion will pass.
The point of this analogy is to emphasize the nerve-muscle connection. When we decompress the muscles, nerves have space to breathe. They are no longer pinched or crushed under the force of tight muscles. This Superhero Pose pumps blood into your arms, which in turn releases nerves under pressure.
- Stand with a neutral spine, which is to say in Homo sapiens mode.
- Straighten your arms by your sides.
- Stretch your fingers out like a starfish.
- Palms facing forward, raise your arms. Imagine you are a Superhero lifting heavy objects without having to touch them. Keep your elbows straight for dramatic effect, but also effective stretching.
- There is a point where you will feel a form of discomfort, or even pain. Stay there, this is your stretch.
- Wiggle your fingers to stimulate the blood flow all along your arm, from the neck to the tips of your fingers.
Make a Bow
We mean the arrow kind, not the ribbon.
- Standing in neutral, feet about shoulder-width apart for stability.
- Reach behind you, under your buttocks.
- If you can interlace your fingers, do. If not, continue to reach for them behind your back.
- Use your breath for the more advanced stretch that is coming. With fingers interlaced, lift your arms up behind you. Palms should be facing if not touching.
- Your chest will jut out as your raise your arms, pushing your shoulders down. This chest opener is terrific for counteracting our tendency to hunch our upper backs.
- Do your best to keep your elbows straight.
- Gently release your fingers.
For an extra stretch, add a forward tilt to your bow.
- Begin with your hands interlaced behind your back.
- Keep your spine as straight as possible as you tilt forward.
- Let blood rush into your head as you hang with your head upside-down and your hands towards the ceiling.
- Breathe deeply as you stretch the backside of your body (glutes, hamstrings, and even calves).
- Tuck in your chin when you are ready to roll back up, one vertebra at a time.
- Come up slowly, as you will probably get dizzy from how much blood you’ve moved around.
- Release your hands with care. Remember, rash movements risk injury.
This exercise adds a slight bend backwards to the Forward Tilt.
- Stand in neutral.
- Bring your arms overhead with outstretched fingers, Superhero-style.
- Press your palms together.
- Inhale as you arch your upper back.
- Look up, past your fingers.
- On the exhale, bring your body forward, hinging at the hips into Forward Tilt.
- Hang forward, head upside-down. Release your hands to the floor or towards it. Nod “yes,” shake your head “no.”
- Finish as you do the Forward Tilt.
Know that most of these stretches you can accomplish in a seated position. You can take them with you to the office, on the subway, and even on a long flight. As we’ve said, movement is the remedy to stiffness, so unless your doctor says otherwise, try out these neck stretches for quick relief.
Don’t let a stiff neck ruin your day. Before you give up and wallow in neck pain misery, hop in the shower for a hot shower, relax into your Neck Hammock, and try out these simple neck stretches. You’ll feel better in no time!
- Aging backwards by Miranda Esmonde-White
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