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Sarah Key - Beat That Back Pain

Back Pain Exercises

Neck Pain Relief Exercises


These neck pain exercises from expert physiotherapist Sarah Key, are highly effective ways to relieve a pain in your neck, shoulder stress and even referred pain from the back.

Why Does My Neck Hurt?

Unexpected pains in the neck are generally brought on by poor posture and stress.

A savage jab of pain whenever you turn your head suddenly, take a deep breath, cough or sneeze can be your first warning sign that it's time to take immediate action.

It can even happen when you accelerate suddenly in the car!

The weight of the head held in front of the rest of the body for long periods is a great strain for the muscles that span the cervico-thoracic junction because they must keep a static hold on the head to keep it in position (so that the eyes and fingers can co-operate!).

The lower cervical facet joints caught in the neck angle by tense muscles inevitably become inflamed. This becomes more serious when the joints swell, causing an escalating domino effect that makes the neck muscles to go into a more heightened state of protective alarm.


The Causes of Neck Pain

Breast feeding and stress

For some reason - probably related to high stress levels, lack of sleep and looking down steeply to the side during breast-feeding - young first time mothers are particularly susceptible to acute neck problems!

Neck pain from the computer

Days at a computer with the head poked forward really strains the cervical facet joints, giving rise to many permanent problems.

Low grade neck symptoms are commonplace in the computer age and so complaints such as pain on the side of the neck are becoming increasingly common. You can read more about this in detail in the pages on computer posture and neck.


Difficulty breathing

Chronic mouth breathing causes neck problems. To breathe well - and to look after your neck - you must keep your mouth closed.

People who breathe through their mouth - and this is increasingly common in modern life with the high levels of stress hormones (cortisol) - often chronically over-use their emergency muscles of respiration in their neck.

They literally use their neck muscles to breathe as a chronic default setting, rather than using their lower, slower, more thorough and less hurried diaphragm muscle deep in the chest.

Because these 'accessory muscles of respiration' are not designed for permanent use, they quickly tire and develop hard cordy strands of fatigued muscle either side of the neck that readily refer pain down through the shoulder and upper back.

The same mouth-breathing habits and poor use of the diaphragm is thought to be at the root of the modern pandemic of panic attacks, sleep apnoea, asthma and the use of inhalers.  

Raised Shoulders
With the stresses and strains of life, the jaw and trapezius muscles (that run from the back of your skull down either side of your neck, fanning out to to each shoulder tip) develop a permanent state of low-grade contraction that bunches up the joints in the neck/shoulder angle.

In a similar way, our emotional response under duress (and this includes tiredness) subtly causes our breathing mechanism to change, which hoists up the shoulders and clutters the joints trapped at the neck angle.

Raised shoulders may be imperceptible to you until you face yourself squarely in the mirror and deliberately let them go. You will be amazed by how far the shoulders drop down when you will them to relax. (The problem invariably is keeping them there!).

Before you start stretching...

In acute crisis with a painful neck, particularly one that is causing shoulder pain, the first principle of treatment is to get the muscles to relax.

There's no two ways about it, you may need medication before you begin your net pain exercises. You really should also consult your treating doctor to take you though this, explaining what the tablets you should take and how often to take them.

Here is some further information on medication for spinal problems that you should read. 


Neck Pain Exercises For Severe Pain Relief

For severe neck pain and shoulder pain when breathing there are two important exercises:

1. Sideways neck stretch

This exercise must be taken slowly. It's purpose is to gently stretch out over-active neck muscles that are keeping the lower cervical facets joints in the side of the neck bunched together and inflamed.

But if you pull the neck too hard and try to stretch the muscles too savagely they will simply clench harder and everything becomes more painful.

It's important to sit  with your shoulders down as low as possible, trying to keep your neck long. This in itself is the beginnings of a stretch, although your neck will feel strangely jangly and twitchy letting go the protective hunch and trying to let the shoulder down. 

To stretch the left side of your neck, take your right arm up over the side of your head, with your forearm resting on the side of your forehead and your fingers clasped under your ear and as low as you can under the jaw.

Not allowing your right shoulder to hitch up, let the weight of your right arm rest heavily on the side of your head. This will slowly bend the head over to the right. Try to keep your breathing slow, low and controlled, feeling your belly swell as your diaphragm activates more effectively. Hold this for 15-30 seconds and repeat another two times to the more painful side, once to the freer side.   


2. The teapot stretch

The teapot neck stretch takes then neck back on the thorax rather than simply the chin up, tipping the head back on neck

In some ways this stretch replicates the action of the upper BackBlock (see below) but it is gentler and more able to be modified and regulated by you. It can also be done on the run when you are working at your desk and you need relief there and then. 

To do this exercise you must interlace your fingers of both hands down to the web and place them under your jaw, trying to get as much of the hands under your chin as you can.

Now, with the fingers still interlaced and your elbows pinned together, lift your elbows as high as possible. Through this action, you will tilt your head and neck backwards on your thoracic spine. Note that this is not simply an action that tips you head back on the top of your neck. Rather, it should emphasise the movement coming from the base of the neck, where your neck dives into your upper thorax. 

In the early acute stages, you will barely be able to lift your chin back at all, with over-pressure often reproducing your familiar pain into the shoulder. Go as far as you can to 'nudging gently into the pain' holding for 5 seconds. Then let the head come back. Repeat another 2 times, trying not to panic so that your shoulders hunch up and you gulp air. As your neck relaxes and the pain starts to subside over the next few days you can push your neck back further and for up to 15 seconds.  



Chronic Neck Pain Relief Exercises

For chronic neck pain there two important exercises:

1. Thoracic BackBlock

The BackBlock is perfect for neck pain exercises, under the upper back. When you advance to this you will still continue to do the earlier exercises. 

The forced BackBlock posture here is important because it is the opposite or antidote posture to head-forward position that most of us are in for the greater part of the day. It mainly angles the cervical spine back on the thoracic spine. But beware!

This exercise means business. You may have to use a book or something shallower than the BackBlock if you head is really stuck forward.

See 'How to use the BackBlock' for further details.


2. The swastika

The swastika is one of those cruel-to-be-kind exercises that is spectacularly successful. It should only be used in cases of non-severe neck pain with minimal shoulder pain referral

On face value, this seems an alarmingly confronting exercise for a neck that is having trouble turning freely and working normally in any way.

However it's a spectacularly successful exercise that simply involves getting your body (and head and neck) into position and letting gravity do the rest.

It involves a passive, sustained rotation of your neck which reduces the swelling and restriction around all the cervical facet joints, like wringing out a dishcloth. It is particularly effective for all chronic neck problems, typically when you are having difficulty turning to reverse the car. 

The exercise involves lying prone on the floor, with the left arm and leg bent to a right angle out to the side of the body; the left hand palm down on the floor. On the other side, the right arm is also bent to a right angle but hand down, palm facing the ceiling. It is important to have both arms bent to a right angle at the elbow, one arm up-palm down, the other arm down-palm up.

The piece-de-resistance is the to turn your head and rest it on the floor facing the right hand (the hand you cannot see). In this position, try to relax as much as possible (this isn't easy) letting the weight of the back of your head go back, and gently twisting your neck further into rotation. Remain in position for 15 seconds, periodically lifting your head and taking it imperceptibly further around into range. Repeat once to each side. Don't panic! 




Recommended Neck Pain Exercises at Home

'Body in Action' is the perfect self-help manual for Musculo-skeletal Disorders.

Even for consultants and therapists, it's often hard to know where shoulder pain is coming from; it's usually the spine - either neck or thorax and sometimes both. 

In dealing with your pain it helps to understand the basic anatomy. It's then easier for you to unravel what you might be doing to cause your pain, as much as what needs doing to get you better.

You'll find that Sarah Key's book 'Body in Action' is written in easy to understand layman's language. It contains carefully modulated exercises based on Yoga that will give you relief from pain. Just you try!


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