Looking after our neck is never a prime concern until it starts to hurt. I found this out the hard way last year, when I felt tingling going down my arm all the way to my thumb. I now know that prioritising neck care is essential, because alongside the lower back, it bears the full force of wrong postural habits. The neck is a vital passage between the head and the rest of the body: the breath, blood, nerve impulses and nourishment all have to pass through this delicate structure. At the same time, the small cervical vertebrae and muscles have to carry the heavy weight of the head and move efficiently. Let’s have a look at how the neck is structured, what can go wrong, and what we can do to look after it now.
The skeletal structure of our neck consists of seven vertebrae. Like the lumbar area of our spine, they form a forward (lordotic) curve when in a neutral position. Unlike the lumbar vertebrae, the are small and delicate. The curvy alignment can be flattened by habitually holding the neck too far back or forward of the shoulders. The forward head position is more common. This is no surprise if you consider that most work options involve bending forward: over a desk, over patients, children, building work etc. Then we go home to rest and slouch on the sofa. This pattern of chronic hunching with a forward head is at the root of a lot of neck pain. Other causes can be an injury, stress, tension in the jaw, scoliosis or osteoporosis.
Posture: Forward head
Any position we take where the head is held forward throws off the alignment of the whole spine. The misalignment has a snowball effect and can even restrict our breathing and affect our digestion. The cause of a forward head can be chronic slouching, but it can also be psychological. A sense of unhappiness, defeat or lack of confidence causes the shoulders to round forward and collarbones to sink down. Regardless of the cause, this position tightens neck and upper back muscles and can degenerate the cervical joints.
When the neck is held forward of the shoulders, the curve of the neck is flattened and the neck muscles have to carry the increased weight of the head. Mary Pullig Schatz writes that with the head forward, the upper back muscles must work overtime to support its weight against the pull of gravity, resulting in tension headaches and arthritis of the neck. Sometimes, this posture even causes degeneration and herniation of intervertebral discs in the neck, creating pain, weakness, and numbness in the neck, arm shoulder and upper back, hand and fingers.” (Back Care Basics, p. 144). She goes on to say that the forward head position can also lead to strain in the lower back and injury of the shoulder and shoulder blade.
Indeed, tingling going down my right arm and thumb was what I felt last year. This went alongside tightness on the right side of my neck, shoulder and inside of the right shoulder blade. I had been aware of my forward head position, but increased online teaching and deskwork made me spend more time with my head in the wrong position. Ironically, the injury was sudden after swimming with my head above the water, so after my neck was being held in the opposite position. The problem is that neck tightness will make other head movements less functional too. My chronic forward head resulted in a tight neck overall. Despite doing neck stretches daily, despite having a strong upper back, holding my head forward and slightly to the side was habit that was “practised” too often throughout the day.
Unable to access a physiotherapist at this time in the pandemic, I used what I knew about the spine and the lower back in particular. Because of the sudden onset, I suspected a herniated disc. I knew it was essential to avoid all positions and movements that brought on the tingling. Also, I moved my neck gently and only in ways that did not hurt or cause tingling. Further, I checked my posture several times a day, raised my computer screen to eye level, and only swam freestyle. After a few months, the tingling disappeared and I am now free from neck pain, which does not mean I can stop prioritising neck care!
Carol Krucoff writes that “experts are now recognizing that, for most people suffering from neck pain and its associated disorders, the most helpful strategy is self-care. Yoga is a powerful form of self-care on several levels” (Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain, p2). She goes on to say that yoga poses help on a physical level, but also psychological and energetic level. Psychologically, yoga can relieve stress. Energetically, breathing can support our vital energy. A few yoga therapy sessions can teach you how to practise yourself at home.
-If you have tingling in your arm, avoid all positions or movements that cause the tingling. Seek medical help.
-Never do head rolls, in which you roll your head around. This can lead to harmful wear and tear. “Neck rolls do not follow the natural intelligence of the spine (…) the cervical facet joints are not ball-and-socket joints” writes Judith Lasater in Yoga Myths (p.25).
-Never stretch the neck muscles strongly. Gentle movements with the breath are more beneficial.
-If you regularly wake up with a stiff neck, don’t ignore this or simply attribute it to a bad pillow. It could be your sleep position, but regular stiff necks are more likely caused by your habitual posture when awake.
-Stand on both feet equally and place both feet on the floor when sitting.
-When standing or sitting upright, allow the heart area to be open and broad, the shoulders relaxed. Imagine a heavy coat on the shoulders while the crown of the head is gently lifted upwards like a coat hanger.
-When it comes to posture, the whole spinal alignment is essential. Yoga therapy can help you strengthen your upper back, release tight neck, shoulder and back muscles. If you would like help with correcting your posture as well as checking what may cause the imbalances, contact me here to discuss how yoga therapy can help you: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/.
Only do the exercises if they don’t hurt or stop the movement before you feel any pain. This is very important for healing.
Lateral stretch, seated
I learned that strong neck stretches, even those mentioned in yoga books, can be counter productive. Moving the rest of the spine together with the neck, is more harmonious and beneficial. So the following stretches integrate this thoracic and cervical movement.
-Sit cross-legged or on a chair.
-Exhale and bend the spine to the side and allow the neck to follow the same curve, There is no need to go far.
-Inhale and return to the centre.
-Exhale and do the same to the other side.
-Repeat a few times to each side.
Rotation (“threading the needle”)
This is a twist for the spine but also lovely to stretch between the shoulder blades
-From child’s pose, keep the left arm straight while placing the right arm underneath the left, right palm facing up.
-Look underneath the left arm.
-Breathe four or five times.
-Return to the centre and repeat on the the other side.
-Finish in the centre.
-Alternatively, if child’s pose is not a good position for you, you could rotate the spine and neck gently while sitting on a chair. Exhale and rotate the while spine to one side, inhale return to the centre. Exhale to the other side and repeat a few times to each side.
Wide-legged forward bend
This still is my most important practice at least once a day. It allows gravity to pull the crown of the head and thus allows the vertebrae to have more space and the muscles to relax. Don’t do this position if you have high blood pressure or if it feels uncomfortable.
-Step your feet wide apart and bend both legs a lot.
-Bend forward from the hips and place the fingertips on the floor.
-Orient the crown of the head to the floor and hang out for a few breaths. Breathe, and feel you can surrender the weight of the head. There is no need to “hold on”.
-To come out of the position, place your hands on the upper legs, straighten the back and come up.
These are only a few stretches. For a good alignment of the neck, strengthening the front of the neck and the upper back is important too. So is gently stretching the front of the chest. To do these practices correctly and in a safe way, however, it is best to have the support of trained eyes.
Five private yoga therapy sessions will teach you, among many other things:
-To strengthen weak muscles and release tight ones.
-Balance the weight from your feet to the crown of the head.
-Optimise the breath so it can assist an easy and upright posture.
Contact me here to discuss how yoga therapy could help you: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/