Pain in the neck. It’s so commanding isn’t it? You are sitting at your desk, stuck in traffic, pushing the buggy, trying to get your pillow right and that constant nagging ache in your neck won’t shift. You feel like your spine is trying to disappear into your head or that you are wearing your shoulders like a pair of earrings. Maybe the ache has even crept up to where your head meets your neck and is steadily throbbing in a vice-like headache. Or perhaps it’s starting to spread into your upper arms like a weird arm toothache or down between your shoulder blades. You’re not sure if you need a three-hour massage, a two-week holiday or a part exchange on your whole spine. Why is it so sore? You didn’t even “do” anything to it. Well there could be loads of different reasons and grabbing an osteopathy session will get to the bottom of it but what to do in the meantime? Here are some quick and easy tips to apply right now that may help lift that heavy, dragging pain in the neck until some expert hands can get to it.
The eyes have it!
We do not use our eyes in their full range anymore. Gone are the days when we scanned the horizon for danger or spent all our time outside looking up, down and all around. Even if we don’t have a desk job in front of a computer, the vast majority of us spend a lot of time looking at a screen of some sort. A screen fixed in one place about a foot from our faces. Believe it or not your upper neck muscles are closely linked to your eye movement and if the eyes get a little fixed the upper neck tends to follow. Try getting them moving every couple of hours and feel the difference. Here’s what I get my patients to do:
Without moving your head, just your eyes, look all the way left and then all the way right. Hold each side for a good few seconds. Repeat a few times. Move on to up and down, again without moving your head. Finally go “around the clock.” Start looking upwards to 12 o’clock then move your eyes around each number. Hold at each number for a few moments before moving on. If any areas feel uncomfortable just hold a little longer without forcing anything. For me, 4 o’clock always feels a little horrible. When you get back to 12 go anti-clockwise. Keep doing this throughout the day and when people accuse you of rolling your eyes you can tell them you’re just doing your neck exercises!
Usually having a loose tongue suggests being a bit of a gossip and is best avoided but in the physical sense the tongue should be nice and relaxed when not in use. It is a big muscle that gets very little rest, but it also has muscles coming from it to the base of the head and front of the neck. If it is overly tight the jaw and neck tend to follow. In a similar way to your eyes the key is to work it in its full range then relax it. This is one you may want to do in private unless you are trying out for the All Blacks rugby team!
Stick your tongue all the way out then lift it up and down and left and right. Try not to let your neck do the work by tipping your head back and forth but really get the tongue stretching into all these positions. You may well feel a gentle tug towards the back of your head/neck and where your tongue attaches to your mouth or feel some interesting crunchy bits in your jaw. As with your eyes, hold each position for a few moments.
Settle your tongue back behind your bottom teeth and give it a rest. Then press it hard and flat to the roof of your mouth, keep it going for a good 10 seconds or so. Then just let it go floppy and open up the space between your back teeth. You should feel the whole jaw and upper neck area melt a little. Repeat all this a few times. Yes, you may feel silly, but it does help!
We tend to get more and more slumped throughout the day and our head ends up sticking forward on our tired neck which is trying very hard to hold that head upright. Your head is a very heavy object to be constantly defying gravity so let’s give our neck muscles the best possible chance of success without injury by getting your head balanced well on your neck.
Imagine a thread (colour optional!) coming out of the top of your head and gently pulling upwards. Give yourself a slight double chin to get your head tucked back where it should be. You should feel the back of your neck elongate up and out of your upper back as your thread pulls you up. Keep stretching up and up to give a nice traction effect to your spinal joints. Nice and simple but effective.
Shrug it off
Our simplest exercise of the post. A lot of neck tension comes off the shoulders and the big cape-like muscles that run between the two areas. Let’s get them working then relaxing. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears, squeezing hard for a good ten seconds or so, then let them drop loose and heavy while your thread in the above exercise lifts your head from your neck.
Lastly, let’s get that bit between your shoulder blades moving. Clap your hands together in front of you with arms straight. Keeping your arms straight, imagine you are using your fingertips to draw the alphabet, making the letters as big as you can. You are locking out your shoulder blades and mobilising the spinal joints between them when you do this. Try to do it sitting or lying down so that you don’t end up letting your pelvis/hips do all the work. Letters, numbers, shapes-it doesn’t matter so long as you’re working through lots of different movements and not just up and down or side to side.
Of course, none of these exercises are as good as getting a proper treatment from a qualified osteopath, but hopefully they may just give you a little respite and see you through to the treatment couch. They are all easy to do when you’re out and about and don’t take too long. As with anything though, if you feel excessive discomfort, dizziness or anything untoward, stop and make that appointment a priority. There are many causes of neck pain but we have loads of tools in our osteopathy tool bag to deal with it!