Neck pain sucks.
I wearily dug my hand into my shoulder yet again, trying in vain to release the tension that had been settling there for the last hour. Neck pain and I were besties. We’d been that way for a while. I didn’t appreciate the friendship – anyone whose neck gets knotted up knows just how poor this kind of ‘friendship’ is.
Until eight years ago, when the pain stopped.
That was when I unlocked the right combination of knowledge, movement, and drills to solve my neck and shoulder tension for good.
And not only my neck pain. Some of my coaching clients dealt with neck pain and shoulder tension, and so I had them try what had worked for me.
And it worked for them too! In this post, I’ll share with you the insights and knowledge you need to solve your neck pain and shoulder tension for good*.
*I will always remind you that if you have pain that concerns you, see a doctor.
Why Stretching Your Neck Muscles Doesn’t Give You Relief
Hand on head, yanking my skull down toward my shoulder, hoping it would relieve my pain. It never did.
Here’s why stretching alone doesn’t solve your neck pain.
When you stretch a muscle, you’re lengthening it farther than its normal length-tension relationship it exists in. The muscle spindles that sit within the belly of the muscle are there to detect changes in the length of the muscle, and send that information to the central nervous system (CNS) so that the body can determine the position of the body parts.
If the CNS receives the signal that the length has changed in the area where you are stretching, it can send back a signal to lock down tight on that area because all it knows is that things are now ‘more lengthened’ from the length-tension relationship it knows.
Stretching a muscle can actually do the very opposite of what you’re trying to achieve – making the very muscle you’re trying to make less tight, tighter.
This is the part where everyone throws their hands up because, ‘well jeez, if stretching doesn’t make your muscles feel better, what are we supposed to do then?’
The solution is to bring your nervous system on board to expand, control, support, and strengthen new length-tension variability in your soft tissue.
Ok. So you have the bit about how stretching doesn’t make neck pain go away. Where do you go from here? Let me show you!
Where Fixing Neck Pain Begins
You must remember this: How you do one thing is how you do everything.
How you position your head and shoulders the majority of your day – including your sleep time – is one of the biggest factors in neck pain and shoulder tension. And it’s often overlooked entirely.
Your soft tissues and joints respond to the signals they receive.
No matter what that signal is, your muscles will respond. Even if that response puts you in a significant movement-potential hole in the future.
If you always send the signal that your skull belongs in front of your spine, your neck muscles, which were designed to keep your skull stacked on top of your spine, will alter their length in order to accommodate this new position.
The muscles in the front of your neck will shorten, the muscles in the back of your neck will lengthen (and subsequently tense up in order to try and restore order in that area). They will accommodate your new head & neck position…
But here’s the problem with that sub-par head position –
It increases the stress on the vertebrae and discs of your spine.
It increases the weight of your head the further out in front of your spine it sits.
Despite the fact that your breathing will eventually be compromised by the change in shape of your neck.
Don’t think you draw your head forward all day long?
Here are places where you may be drawing your head forward and not even realizing it. Plus, I have a corrective you can apply immediately to start fixing the position.
Spotting And Fixing Sub-Optimal Posture In Your Daily Life
1) As You Stare At Your Computer Screen
This is the obvious one that most everyone knows about by now, yet it still needs a giant flood light focused on it since we spend so much time at computers. You can do all of the postural work you want, but spending a vast majority of your day in sub-optimal head position will undo all of that postural work and then some.
If someone grabbed the hair at the very center back of your head and gently pulled your head back to the wall behind you – draw your head back just like that. Then, if we affixed a helium-filled balloon to the top of your head and its upward pull could gently pull your head up with it – draw your head into that position.
2) As You Stare At The Rectangle In Your Hand
Like every other human while you wait for the train, the bus, your kids, the guy in front of you at Chipotle – you’re tipping your head over like a teapot to watch cat videos on the internet. Your neck muscles are being forced to hold a load they weren’t intended to hold for sustained periods of time.
Two fixes actually –
1. Reset your arm position so that your skull can stay stacked on your head.
2. Learn to use your eye muscles for looking at things.
Bend your arm at the elbow and prop your elbow against your front of your ribcage, and have your phone propped up closer to your face.
When it’s just not possible to take that position, remember that you have eye muscles that let you look in a variety of directions without actually moving your head to do so. This isn’t put into practice much in modern society. You don’t need to look in a multitude of directions, so you just stop practicing it.
Take your phone & place it in your lap. Keep your head looking straight ahead and use your eyes to look down at the phone. Put the phone on the table a foot to your left or right. Without turning your head, use your eyes only to see the phone. Get in the habit of practicing seeing thing by using your eye muscles to shift your gaze.
3) As You Exercise, Working Every Muscle Into Shape, But Fully Neglecting The Muscles Of Your Neck & Head
Your muscles are linked together, firing in harmony and support of each other.
Exercise is one way we enhance the linking together of the kinetic chain of muscles in our bodies.
The neck muscles have a strong interplay with the muscles of the trunk, which makes sense if you consider that your neck & trunk share the spine, and so the two working together to brace or allow for movement makes sense.
Remember that exercise is a time for you to spend in a conscious, controlled environment working on your muscular strength & movement organization – so that when you’re in the real world, an unconscious, uncontrolled environment (like black ice you slip on as you head down the driveway) doesn’t take you out at the knees.
Train with better posture so that you maintain better posture. The most painful place I see sub-optimal posture during exercise is when folks drop into a plank position or do similar torso training work.
If you’re going to do planks, bring your head backwards toward the sky as you hold the position. But don’t look up! Your eyes should remain facing the floor and your head should simply slide backward.
If someone put a broomstick on your back as you held the plank, your back of your head would brush the broomstick as it stretched from your spine up past your head.
4) As You Sleep, Restoring & Recharging Every Part Of Your Body, Except Your Head & Neck Muscles
The woman in this photo is tucking her chin down towards her chest, a position that, over time, can add up to stiff and sore neck and shoulders.
Even though Sleeping Beauty is “resting”, she is conditioning her soft tissue to support that folded forward head position. And if you’ve never looked into Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ, aka, jaw problems) research, there is a surprising amount of muscle tension happening while we sleep if we are under stress. And who isn’t under stress these days?
So despite the fact that sleeping should be a time of rest, you could be tensing your muscles quite hard throughout the night. Even if you’re not tensing your muscles all night long, holding any position will, over time, encourage your body to get better at getting into that position.
When you lie down tonight and are laying on your back or your side, take stock of where your head is positioned in relation to your body. Consider your spine at the center of your body. Stack your head on top of your body like the dot over a lowercase letter ‘i’. Anytime you find yourself leaning your head off to the side or curling it forward & down, return to your letter ‘i’ position with your head.
This often means doing the exact same shift back that you did when you fixed your posture while looking at your computer screen.
Where The Road To Fixing Neck Pain Leads Next
Changing the input on your soft tissue is a good start to relieving your neck and shoulder tension.
The next crucial step is to change the output of your soft tissue and joints. Because when these function better, you feel better.
I hold a free workshop on this topic so that you can dig deeper, see and hear me teach specific movement drills, and get more tools to make your neck and shoulder tension a thing of the past.
Join me by reserving your spot below. Again, it’s a free workshop, I want you to have this information because I’m certain that more humans feeling better is imperative to this world becoming better.