While it may not get as much attention as lower back pain, neck pain can be equally as common and just as disabling. It is well documented that stress can lead to exacerbated back pain. This is even truer of neck pain. Understanding how we create stress in our necks and shoulders is the first step living a pain free life--stress or not.
"The frequency of neck pain approaches that of lower back pain, which affects 80 to 90 percent of adults at one point or another, but it’s just not as well studied," says Daniel J. Mazanec, MD, vice chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Spine Institute and head of the Section for Spine Medicine. "Neck pain often can be disabling or distressing for several days," says Dr. Mazanec,” but the good news is that most people get better quickly and can resume normal activities without high-tech or complex treatments.
Everyday activities that produce physical stress are one factor to blame for soft tissue abnormalities in the neck's muscles, nerves, and ligaments. Such activities include bending over a desk for prolonged periods of time, poor posture while watching TV or reading. Also placing your computer monitor too high or too low, sleeping in an uncomfortable position, trauma from accidents or twisting and turning the neck in a jarring manner during exercise can cause neck pain.
“Emotional stress is less tangible, but often the bigger problem, especially when it comes to neck pain,” explains this Sharyn Galindo of North Shore Yoga. Emotional stress includes worrying over finances, grief, anger or frustration that results in tension or abnormal holding patterns in the body, particularly in any areas that are already weakened or overworked – like the neck. This tension amounts to tight muscles, which can irritate the nerves and produce the pain in your neck.
There are just seven bones in your neck (the cervical spine), and they are some of the most overworked bones in the body. Imagine lugging around a bowling ball all day – you’d be exhausted, even if you were able to switch the ball from arm to arm or carry it in a backpack or sling. Now imagine balancing that ball on your fingertips, and you have some idea of what your neck has to contend with in carrying your head, which weighs about 12 pounds. Now add to this the fact that we all have unique habitual tension patterns from stress and you have a perfect storm for neck soreness.
Stressors, worry, and anxiety all produce muscle tension. It's part of the natural fight-or-flight response, and is one of the ways that our bodies respond to threats and demands — whether those challenges are actually happening, or if they're just in our heads. Some people are more prone to feel this stress response in their muscles, while others may be dogged by fatigue, indigestion, or moodiness. Many people aren't even aware they are stressed or anxious. They just become used to the background level of stress and ignore it. "However, they are still integrating this stress into the physical structure of their body through patterning and increased muscle tone," says Sharyn Galindo. “Yoga meditation allows us to find that quiet place where there are no habitual though patterns or tension holding patterns. Also, through mindfulness practices we can become aware of how we deposit tension in the body and avoid those tendencies,” Says Galindo.
There are three steps to relieving neck and shoulder pain: Doing strengthening exercises and stretches that brings the structure of the body into balance and proper anatomical alignment; Getting proper therapy to restore that alignment and break up fascial restrictions that can't be resolved by stretching; Becoming aware of stress in life and how that stress is deposited in the body's anatomy in order to reduce the tension in the first place.
"Whether its Yoga, physical therapy, body work or chiropractic that is used it is important to restore and maintain natural alignment of the spine,” Says Dr. Josh Akin, Director of the Chicago Sports Institute in Northfield, IL. “A head that leans forward in Anterior head carriage changes the weight on the neck from 12 pounds to more than 42 pounds. Proper alignment prevents this. It's helpful to learn how to relax, lengthen and decompress your neck,” Says Dr. Akin.
Below is a simple yoga vinyasa you can do a few times a day while working to relax neck and shoulder muscles:
- Bend your head forward, bend your head to the right, then back to original position; Bend your head forward, bend to the left, then back to original position.
- Turn your head and look over your left shoulder. Return to center. Turn and look over your right shoulder. Return to center.
- Bend head slightly backward, then to the original position.
- Bend head forward, chin to chest, tilt head to the right, then to the left.
Here is a mindfulness meditation practice that will allow you to release tension and become aware of where stress manifests in your neck and shoulders.
- Sit up straight in a chair where it is quiet. Bring your awareness to your breath and simply watch it for a few minutes. This can be anywhere you sense your breath. If the mind wanders gently bring it back to the breath. Now move your awareness to your neck and shoulders. Allow the awareness to settle on any area that draws its attention. Avoid labeling or trying to fix what you are sensing. Just be with it and allow. Allow your awareness to stay with the shoulders a few minutes. Return your awareness to your shoulders. Imagine heat flowing to any area that you felt tension or resistance. See the resistance as ice melting away.
- After you finish this exercise note where you felt tension and watch this area(s) the next time you feel stressed. It is likely there will be increased tightness in this area. Practice letting go of the tension is this specific place whenever you are anxious or stressed.
Myofascial release therapy can help release tension caused by shortened muscles due to fascial adhesions. The therapist gently works with pressure and friction to break up the fibrous tissue that limits range of motion thereby decreasing the compression caused by shortened neck muscles.
Other things you can do to prevent neck muscle tension and decrease pain:
- Observe correct workspace ergonomics for your job. Adjust chair and keyboard height. Use a headset or speakerphone to avoid phone cradling.
- Practice Yoga or another exercise to reduce stress and improve strength and flexibility
- Get a massage. Massage, particularly myofascial release therapy can work wonders on tight neck and shoulder muscles, relieving pain.
- Drink water. Muscles and joints need adequate water to function properly. At least eight, 8 oz glasses per day, or more depending on your weight, environment (very cold, very hot needs more) and activity.
- Practice Meditation or other relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety
Even though you might not be able to remove stress from your life, or completely avoid physical maneuvers that strain your neck and shoulder muscles, you can remove, or greatly alleviate, the tension in your neck and shoulders that can develop. Adhering to good neck and shoulder habits, and spending a few minutes each day doing simple stretching exercises can help you manage muscle tension so it doesn't continue to be a serious pain in your neck. Practice the techniques above and get help from a professional Yoga instructor, massage therapist, chiropractor or physician.