by Troy Vander Molen, PT, DPT
As a physical therapist, it’s common for me to work with a person experiencing neck pain. In fact, studies have shown that in one year, between 10-20% of the population will experience neck problems. Research also tells us that only 7% of people with musculoskeletal issues see a physical therapist each year. So, I can easily deduce that there are a lot of people reading this that have experienced neck pain but have never sought the counsel of a physical therapist.
I know it is a little daunting making the decision to see a physical therapist, so let me share some key principles that will help you understand your neck and how to care for it.
The neck – formally known as the cervical spine – is made up of seven vertebral segments. The alignment and orientation of the joints that connect each segment (known as facet joints) allows for a lot of rotation movement, which is very important if you are merging into traffic, for example. Overall though, the neck is quite mobile in all three dimensions of movement – rotation, side bending, and flexion/extension.
At times, our necks experience a localized area of pain and soreness. Most of us know what it feels like to have a “kink” in our neck – localized pain on one side that makes turning the head difficult. Why does this occur? Most often it is because one of the joints between cervical segments that guide and control movement has become irritated.
Relieving Neck Pain
If this occurs to you, here are three great ideas to get rid of that pain:
- Push Through the Pressure
With this type of issue, there are often associated muscle tightness issues, sometimes even trigger points. Use your thumb or fingers of the hand opposite the side of pain and push directly in the middle of the tight muscle (Figure 1). Hold it for about 45 seconds, and follow up with a stretch in the opposite direction. Repeat this 2-3 times to reduce muscle tension and pain.
- Monitor Your Posture
Kinks in the neck are usually an indication that your posture is suboptimal. A slouched posture results in upper back flexion, and the neck compensates by falling forward and extending at the upper cervical segments (Figure 2A). Repeat correct posture by sitting tall and performing a chin tuck (Figure 2B), which reverses the faulty posture.
Figure 2. Chin tuck
- Use the Blessing of Movement
An often forgotten strategy is using movement to reduce pain and muscle tightness. It is a natural reaction to splint the neck when a kink occurs. Unfortunately, a lack of movement reduces nutrition to the neck joints, and the problem is typically prolonged. Instead, you should move the neck, but be sure to emphasize movement away from the sharp pain. For example, if it hurts to rotate to the right, you should repeatedly rotate the neck to the left to help it loosen up. You can use the same strategy for side bending and flexion/extension. Motion helps drive nutrition to the joint, which helps resolve the problem.
The Root of the Problem
If you’ve read any of my articles in the past, you know that I always talk about the neighbors to the area of pain. The neck is no different. Treating your neck pain is different than treating the neck problem. So, if you get some benefit from the aforementioned exercises, it’s because you’ve used strategies to reduce the pain, but you haven’t necessarily eliminated the problem.
If you go to a health care practitioner and medications, injections, a chiropractor, taping procedures, ultrasound, surgery, or another treatment that focus on the area of pain, you will likely feel better… at least for awhile. You are also likely to have the issue return because you haven’t found and fixed the root problem.
Last month I told you that a majority of the people I’ve helped with shoulder issues have had limited thoracic spine and hip mobility. (Check out that article here.) You might be surprised to find that nearly all of the people I’ve treated over the years with neck pain have a root problem at the thoracic spine.
If you’ve experienced recurrent neck pain, I’d encourage you to act now. This month, we’re offering free neck screens, but this offer is limited to only 5 clients at each of our five locations. Email us or call us today at 866-588-0230 to get a complimentary, brief (15 minute), no strings attached assessment with one of our physical therapists to help you understand if your neck needs a little help from its friend, the thoracic spine.