The 3 most common mistakes that I see other PT’s, Doctor’s, and Trainers make when trying to help people with neck pain is:
- Try to make the muscles around the neck bigger.
- Try to stretch the muscles around the neck.
- Try to have patients actively tuck their chin and pull their head back (if someone has a forward head position)
*PLEASE DO NOT do the activity linked directly below*
As someone who has spent a lot of money and time learning to be a Physical Therapist better help people get bigger neck muscles, how to target certain muscles for stretching, and having A LOT of patients tuck their chin and pull their head back, I found out pretty quickly it wasn’t helpful to do any of those activities.
As someone who completed 3 additional years of formal training after getting my Doctoral degree in Physical Therapy, has multiple mentors and tries to learn something new every day to better help my patients and clients I can confidently say that stretching and strengthening alone are not successful principles for helping people alleviate their neck pain.
If you are someone who has been struggling with neck pain and headaches chances are you have been told by other healthcare professionals that you have one, or all 3 of the above mentioned issues.
So then you might be wondering if exercising to get a stronger/ more stable neck, and stretching doesn’t help with my neck pain, then what will?!
I have 2 general helpful hints:
- Learning to breathe into your lower back
- Learning how to comfortably unshrug (without feeling any tension in your neck or shoulders). See videos at bottom of post.
Lets talk about breathing real quick without getting lost in the weeds.
Every time you take a breath your rib cage needs to expand in multiple directions at one time, like a balloon being filled up. However in many civilizations we are so afraid of ending up in a position where we are bent forward looking like a “?” or a “C” that for generations everyone has been told to “stand up straight.”
Now stand up straight can mean different things for different people, but for most it means:
- Pull your shoulders back
- Pull your head back
- Make your back as tall as possible
- Keep your weight on your toes
The action of doing all 4 of these results in closing off the space for your rib cage and lungs to fill with air. The balloon won’t be able to expand.
However whenever going to the Doctor or most Physical Therapists/ Chiropractors they assume the rib cage is moving. More than likely they have never been exposed to the idea that the patient’s rib cage is NO LONGER moving like a balloon, or they just don’t see the importance in it.
They often don’t even check to assess how the patient is breathing.
But let me tell you, it is VERY IMPORTNANT.
Because if your rib cage doesn’t balloon out to take a breath in, then compress everywhere to exhale…
The only way you can continue to breathe is to use your NECK TO LIFT your rib cage up. And guess how many times your take a breath in and out everyday?
18,000 – 23,000 per day.
Let me give you some context… lets says I handed you a 1 lb weight and asked you to do 3 sets of 15 bicep curls. No big deal right?
Now what if I asked you to do 20,000 1 lb bicep curls by the end of the day? How do you think your arm would feel? Not great.
That is what your neck is doing EVERYDAY to keep you alive. Your neck isn’t “too weak,” it actually has not gotten a break in a very long time.
So you can imagine when I see health and wellness professionals give activities like the one’s below without any assessment of how the patient breathes, I get a little frustrated.
Plus it doesn’t make sense IF the main reason for neck pain was due to muscles not being strong enough AND too tight because they are essentially opposite things.
If you wanted to teach muscles how to relax and turn off, that is a skill in itself. Making a muscle work HARDER is not a good plan of action to help a muscle to learn to RELAX.
I know the theory in the PT and Training world is that the “muscles are tight because they are too weak to stabilize the joint so they are have to recruit all of the muscles to hold up their head.”
Or in some realms of chiropractic’s the reasoning behind muscles tightness is that the spine or ribs are “out of place,” but after they are put back into place you have to move around carefully to make sure they don’t fall out again…
Are both of these completely false? They are 2 very small concepts reduced to paint entire picture of why someone is suffering with neck pain. In respects there is some truth to them in other parts of the body, but it often has nothing to do with neck pain.
So what can you do to help yourself?
Try these out below:
Not in Maine to work with me in person?
That’s okay! I work with a lot of people online as well. Schedule a call to see how I can help you.
Kaltenborn, F., Evjenth, O., Kaltenborn, T. B., Morgan, M., and Vollowitz, E. The Spine: Volume II, 5th Edition: 2009.
Chaitow, L., Gilbert, C., Bradley, D. Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders: A Multidisciplinary Approach: 2014.
DeTroyer, A., Boriek, A. Mechanics of the respiratory muscles. American Physiological Society. Comprehensive Physiology. 1:1273-1300, 2011.