Neck Pain – Why Your Neck Might Be Sore and
How You Can Help Alleviate the Pain on Your Own
By: Shannon Uppington DOMP, NSCA-CPT
Raise your hand if you have ever experienced any of the following:
- Headaches or Migraines
- A heavy head – it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, literally!
- A dull constant achiness in your neck
- Inability to look over your shoulder or check your blind spot while driving because the pain when you turn your head is too much
- #Pain radiating from neck down into the shoulder
- Stiff neck upon waking
So, chances are you raised your hand, or thought – this applies to me. If you are one of the very few people who have not experienced any of the above issues, consider yourself lucky, because as a Manual Osteopath, one of the top conditions/pain that I see in the clinic involves the neck and tight neck muscles. Regardless if you have or do not have #neckpain, this article can still be helpful to you because after all, the best medicine is prevention!
In the next couple of paragraphs I am going to cover some of the main causes of neck pain, some tips you can use to help prevent the pain from occurring and a simple at home program that you can do to help alleviate the tension in your neck and prevent future neck pain.
While some causes of neck pain may seem obvious, others may not. Here is a list of some of the most common causes of neck pain:
- Poor posture, bad ergonomics: Many of us work desk jobs where we sit and work at a computer all day long and when we are not staring at a computer, we are either looking at our phone (you may have heard of “text neck”) or driving. All of this sitting and staring, causes us to slouch and bring our heads forward putting constant and excess strain on the muscles on the back of our neck, while shortening and tensing up the muscles on the front side of it. Doing this day after day is sure to eventually cause problems.
- Talking on the phone: In the above reason, I mentioned staring at our cell phone, whereas talking on it can also cause problems. Often when we are talking to someone on the phone, we are doing something else at the same time, ex. working on the computer or cooking dinner. To free up our hands so we can do these other tasks while we chat, we usually place the phone between our ear and shoulder causing us to hike up our shoulder and side bend our neck to hold the phone in place. After a few long chats on the phone, this will lead to some pretty tight muscles on the same side of the neck.
- Bad sleeping positions: When was the last time you bought a new pillow? If you cannot remember, it might be a good idea to replace the one you have especially if you wake up with neck pain. Sleeping with the wrong kind (yes, there are right and wrong kinds of pillows!) or sleeping in awkward positions (Captain Morgan’s pose anyone?), can wreak havoc on your neck. Sleep should make you feel rested and not leave you waking up in pain.
- Certain weight lifting exercises or sports: Have you ever worked out and then the next day your neck is sore? Well this could be because you intentionally or unintentionally ‘worked out’ some of your neck muscles, most specifically upper trapezius. Our upper trapezius muscle fibres tend to be much stronger than our lower or mid trapezius muscle fibres, which causes them to take over some exercises if you are not careful. If this happens, the next day you will probably feel some soreness or stiffness in your neck. Additionally, new activities and sports can also cause pain in the neck especially if they require you to frequently turn your head. SInce this is the winter and many of us are hitting the slopes, it would be a good idea to stretch after you spend the day on the hill to help prevent muscle soreness the following day. Speaking of skiing, here is a great article explaining the different types of skiing, as well as the different physiological demands of each type – did you know that elite cross country skiiers rank amongst the top endurance athletes in the world for aerobic power a.k.a. VO2max: https://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/ski-training.html
While these are some of the most common types of neck pain, this list isn’t exhaustive. If you do not think that any of these reasons are why your neck hurts or if your neck pain lasts for a few days without getting better, you should see your medical doctor or a manual therapist such as a Chiropractor, Physiotherapist, Manual Osteopath or Registered Massage Therapist. If your neck pain is accompanied by vertigo or dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), severe headaches or migraines, nausea and vomiting, fever, or if you fell, were in a car accident or were injured playing a sport, you should seek assistance from your medical doctor immediately.
As you can see, most of the most common causes of neck pain are due to poor posture or repeated activities. A few things that you can do on a daily basis to help prevent the pain from getting worse or reoccurring are:
- Make sure your workspace is ergonomically correct and that your computer monitor, keyboard, mouse and chair are all good quality and in optimal positions.
- When you drive, focus on relaxing your shoulders by keeping them down and away from your ears. Tuck your chin in instead of pushing it out. Also, try not to put your left elbow up on the windowsill while you drive.
- When you text or play on your phone or read a book, try holding it up in front of you so that you are not hunched forward and looking down.
- If you talk on the phone a lot, start using speakerphone, ear buds with a microphone or a headset instead of squishing your phone between you ear and shoulder.
- Invest in a good pillow and mattress.
- Always take the time to warm up, cool down and stretch when exercising or doing any physical activity.
Speaking of stretching, I have created an at-home routine that you can do to help alleviate muscle tightness and tension in the neck. By doing this routine several times a week, you should notice decreased tightness, less stiffness and better range of motion in your neck, especially if you are also taking into consideration the suggestions mentioned above.
STEP 1: Apply heat to your neck and shoulders using a heating pad, hot water bottle or heat compress. If you do not have any of these available, you can stand under some warm water in the shower for several minutes. By applying heat, you are warming up and waking up the muscles in the neck, while increasing blood flow.
STEP 2: Soft Tissue work. The following are short videos showing you some techniques that you can do on a few of the main muscles in the neck to help relieve some of the tension and tender spots in these areas.
- Upper trapezius: As mentioned above, this muscle is notorious for being tight and causing problems. Your upper trapezius muscle fibres are responsible for laterally flexing the neck, upward rotation of the shoulder blade, elevation of the shoulder blade (shrugging the shoulders) and extending the neck.
Upper Trapezius Soft Tissue technique
- Find tender points along the upper trapezius
- Apply pressure to the point, not too much though! You still want it to be tolerable and you want to be relaxed.
- Side bend head away from the side you are working on
- Complete eight to ten passes or until relief is felt
- Make your way along the muscle from the base of the neck to the shoulder
2) Levator Scapulae: This muscle is often the cause of the ‘kink in the neck’ feeling. It is located at the back and sides of the neck. The levator scapulae elevates the scapula aka shoulder blade. It also synergistically laterally flexes and rotates the neck down.
Find the tender point just above the top corner or angle of the shoulder blade
- Apply moderate pressure
- Side bend the neck away from the pressure and then rotate the head down as if you are smelling your armpit or looking at your front pocket
- You can gradually work your way up the neck towards the base of the spine
- Complete eight to ten passes or until relief is felt
3) Suboccipitals: Ah, the suboccipitals. This is a group of several small muscles that work together to extend and rotate the head. Tightness and overuse in this area is a big cause of headaches for many people.
Video of Suboccipital Soft Tissue technique:
- Place your thumbs at the base of your neck and apply moderate pressure
- Tilt our head forward – chin towards chest
- Complete eight to ten times or until a release is felt
STEP 3: Stretch. The following are some stretches that can be done to the muscles shown in the videos, as well as a few other muscles. The stretches should be held for approximately 15 to 20 seconds and done at least twice. When you stretch, it is important to remember not to stretch too far – only until you feel a slight stretch.
- Upper trapezius: Place the arm on the same side that you are wanting to stretch behind your back. Tilt your head to the opposite side. You can use your other hand to apply light pressure to the side of your head to increase the stretch.
2. Levator scapulae: Place the arm on the same side that you are wanting to stretch behind your back. Tilt your head to the opposite side then rotate so you are looking down towards your armpit. You can use your other hand to apply light pressure to the side of your head to increase the stretch.
3. Suboccipitals and neck extensors: Look down towards your chest. You can lightly place both hands on your head to help increase the stretch.
4. Sternocleidomastoid: We have not had a chance to talk about these muscles yet. Located on the front of your neck and attaching just behind your ear, your SCM rotates your head to the opposite side and also flexes the neck. You can stretch this muscle by rotating your head to the opposite side and then tilting your head backwards. Option to place the arm of the same side you are stretching behind your back.
STEP 4: Tape. I also recommend that you apply SpiderTech tape to the neck muscles to create a neurosensory response to help reduce pain, improve function and support the muscles. The NECK Spider as well as the Universal I Strips are good options. A POSTURAL Spider or a postural application may be helpful as well since many neck issues are caused by poor posture.
*All photos of the muscles are from the book Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg*