Do you sometimes wake up in the morning and you immediately realise something is seriously wrong: your neck gives you stabbing pain on one side and you can hardly move your head? It may even be so bad you can hardly lift your head off the pillow… You must have ‘slept wrongly,’ with your head on the ‘wrong’ pillow. It can take a week before turning your head to one side becomes easier. What is causing this??
Your neck pain does not necessarily result from sleeping on the ‘wrong’ pillow, which is not to say that your pillow cannot be improved. In fact, when sleeping on your side, make sure to fill up the space between the mattress and your head so that your head is not leaning downwards. However, in case of acute neck pain in the morning, it is more likely that the awkward sleeping position was the last straw for the neck muscles and they decided to go into spasm, simply had enough of the hard work! Our head is very heavy and requires a lot of muscular effort to stay balanced on the shoulders. Imagine how hard the neck muscles have to work when the head is habitually held slightly forward, or slightly to one side. Stress can also cause neck and shoulder muscles to become chronically tight.
Today, I am sharing 3 tips to ease acute or chronic neck pain. Chances are you know them already, but this may be a reminder to also practise them…
1. Firstly, especially when your neck hurts or feels fragile and you live in a cold climate, keep your neck warm: use heat pads, cherry pit cushions, scarves, … give this sensitive area some extra care.
2. Secondly, and very importantly: always feel like the crown of your head is being pulled upwards towards the sky. This lengthens your neck and relaxes the shoulders. Also make sure that your chin is relaxing downward towards the throat so the back of your neck feels long. Look in the mirror to see if your head isn’t slightly to the side or held forward. Keep imagining the string that pulls your head up throughout the day. This is the #1 tip for avoiding neck pain in the future, because your daily posture will spare the neck muscles a lot of overwork!
3. Do neck stretches daily: practise slowly and gently. If your neck hurts, be sure not to stretch into pain: a stretch should never hurt: always stop before you start feeling pain. This puts the muscles more at ease and they will heal more quickly. Don’t do these exercises if you have recently had a herniated cervical disc.
Practising the exercises in front of a mirror can be a good idea, because with chronically tight neck muscles we may lose some sense of where our head is in space. For example, you may think that you stretch one ear down to the shoulder but if you look properly it is more the chin that goes to the shoulder.
Sit straight and keep your shoulders relaxed while doing the following exercises. Imagine a heavy coat weighing the shoulders down.
Finally, breathe mindfully to get the most out of the stretches.
• Looking to the side: Exhale and look over to the right, inhale back to the centre, exhale turn the head to look left. Repeat slowly and let the length of your breath guide the movement.
• Back of the neck stretch: Exhale and lower the chin towards the throat, focusing on the movement of the head. Inhale and lift the chin up. Repeat a few more times, and feel the back of the neck lengthen as the chin moves down. This may release chronically tight muscles at the back of your neck.
• Ear to shoulder: Exhale while bringing the right ear to the right shoulder, inhale back to the centre and exhale to the other side. Repeat a few times on each side. If it feels ok you can stay and breathe for about a minute on each side, placing a hand on your head to add some weight and increase the stretch.
• Half neck roll: With the right ear to the right shoulder, keep your chin close to the chest and do a half neck roll so that the left ear comes near the left shoulder. Inhale and stay there. Exhale and roll the head to the other side again. Repeat several times. A full neck roll is not recommended and can be unsafe.
For these exercises the breath, the attention and carefulness are key. If you worry about doing them correctly, or about recurrent neck pain, you may want to look into private yoga therapy sessions. They can determine which stretches are right for you and how to do them correctly. Neck pain must be viewed in the context of the entire body and the alignment of the spine. For example, if you habitually keep your head forward, you will benefit from strengthening exercises for shoulders and upper back. One example of such an exercise is explained in my blog of 3 August ’15. If you feel that you need to work on your whole posture, corrective yoga exercises can have very good results. Best of luck!