In this post I want to give you the tools to lay the foundations of a functional and stable, pain free neck. As with all spinal rehabilitation and retraining, there are important aspects that have to be addressed in order to achieve the end result of decreased neck pain and increased movement.
Make sure to check out my post on beating headaches arising from a tight and sore neck.
The first is kinesthetic training. This, in a nutshell, is gaining a better awareness of safe spinal movement and the neutral spine position. This is an important initial building block for the neck because, as mentioned earlier, when in pain we tend to lose proper feeling in the neck and in turn lose control of the stabilising muscles. This leads to unknowingly holding your head in a bad position (and so more neck pain!).
So first we need to discuss the neutral spinal position for the head and neck.
As you can see in the picture above, the image on the left is in neutral spinal position, still maintaining gentle curves. Now the image on the right has a typical poor posture of the upper back and neck, with their head jutting forward and their back rounded out. Just remember a good spinal position is not having your spine as straight as a pole or forcing yourself bolt upright!
1.1. Double chin
The first technique we will do is head retractions (I find calling it Double chins makes it far easier to remember). A great way to visualize this exercise is thinking about giving yourself an extra chin, as it has this effect when performed. To do this it is important to keep looking forward while bringing your head backward, making sure not to tilt your head down (it may help to put a finger on your chin to guide your head back).
Hold this position for 5 seconds 5 times. This can be done little and often throughout the day
Now this is an extreme of the position and we do not need to have a head this far back all the time! Rest assured.
1.2 Keeping moving
The second easy exercise to start doing is turning nods. This exercise is to start functionally working the core muscles of your neck and help them start feeling normal again. This is a fantastic exercise for neck pain and while at times it may feel like it isn’t doing much, believe me it works wonders on sore necks and headaches, allowing improved neck function and more feeling into the neck.
The added bonus is that it makes you keep the neck moving because as I’m sure you know when in pain we tend to stiffen up and this is not what we want at all.
Turning nods: This involves turning your head to each side and performing 3 nods on each side. These nods need to be small so that you are just moving your head on your neck. An important thing to remember with these exercises is do not push into pain! Also for some people this can feel like an awkward movement to do or you may struggle to do the small nods – persevere and they will get better, this just shows that the muscles really are weak and lack control. This awesome exercise takes no time at all and can be done little and often throughout the day.
The second aspect is muscle re-training, you can move on to this as early as you like, progressing on as it gets easier.
The specific muscles that we want to retrain are the Deep Neck Flexors.
2. Chin tuck
The best and most used exercise is the chin tuck, which provides the basis for neck stabilization This exercise can be done in numerous positions, including lying on your back, tummy, in four point kneeling and standing. BUT there are progressions to this exercise and you want to make sure you have each stage down before you move on.
Initial position for learning the chin tuck: lying on your back, knees bent with a towel rolled up under your head as shown so that the thickest part is under the base of your head.
Action: Tuck your chin in causing a fattening of the neck and a downward pressure to be applied to the rolled towel at the base of your neck.
How much? Begin with 10×3 second holds and progress to 10×10 seconds – 2 sets of these twice daily.
- place your tongue on the top of your mouth and keep your teeth apart. This will help relax the jaw and only utilise the muscles we want, deep in your neck.
- Do not force this exercise, it needs to be gentle
- Quality over quantity – keep it nice and slow and control it!
Chin Tuck progression:
Once you have mastered the chin tuck in lying and you can do it easily in a smooth motion without tensing your jaw, then you are ready to move on and do this exercise in the other positions. I recommend progressing to four point kneeling first as this will give you great feedback having to work against gravity. You can also do the exercise in front lying and standing.
The third aspect is unloading the neck by stretching tight muscles:
3. Arm pit stretch: This is a great stretch to unload your neck and shoulder. I call it this as you are pulling your head towards your armpit!
Hold this for at 1 minute and perform 3 times daily. To get a better stretch it may help to hold on to a bench or table with the opposite hand to stop the shoulder rising up.
4. Ear to shoulder: Keep your head looking forward and this time pull your head towards your shoulder and hold for 1 minute also 3x daily.
– Double chins
– Turning nods
– Chin tucks
– Arm-pit stretch
– Ear to shoulder stretch
These exercises absolutely don’t take long and can be done LITTLE AND OFTEN throughout the day.
Be sure to keep and eye out for an upcoming post on postural correction for some great self mobilization and correction techniques you can do at home and also my recent post on Self Trigger Pointing.