It is important to understand what the neck actually does and how it works so you can improve your body posture and conduct tasks in a better way.
What makes up the neck?
The neck consists of several muscles; amongst the better known are the deltoid, trapezius, pectoralis major and sternocleidomastoid.
If you saw both frontal and side view images of the neck muscles you would see how they cross over to create flexible strength, even enabling people to carry heavy items on their heads as we see among tribal women in Africa for instance.They have perfect posture!When structures (like neck muscles) are “organised” in such a way, it allows for even distribution of tension providing stability and strength.
Depending on how you use your body/neck you can maintain such strength or weaken it over time.
The neck is often referred to medically as the cervical spine and consists of a number of vertebrae extending from the skull to the upper torso.The cervical discs absorb shock between the bones.Bones, ligaments and muscles of the neck support the head and allow motion.
A heavy load
The neck has a lot to support – a very important part of the human body - the head! We take the neck for granted and it is only when we feel discomfort or limited movement that we realise its importance in our daily activities.
The adult human head, which comprises the brain, teeth, eyes, facial muscles and skin, as well as nerves and tendons, weighs approximately 4.5 to 5kg.
The brain itself weighs around 3.36kg in an adult so you can see the amount of work the neck has to do to keep your head balanced since it contains such a vital part of your anatomy!
Interestingly, poor posture can “add weight” to the load the neck must carry.We really don’t want to do this since over burdening the neck muscles can weaken them and contribute to discomfort.
Check your posture now.
Stand straight, pull your core in – don’t forget to breathe!Relax your shoulders and your chin, now place your longest finger very lightly on the outside of your thigh. Close your eyes and see if you have the sensation of rocking or you are stock still. See if you get a sensation of rocking forward more than back and forth.Tune into your body and notice how your feet are placed on the ground. I check this stance with everyone. It could be very subtle but people never pay attention to how they stand, even how they walk! It may also indicate a tilting pelvis.
In Bowen therapy we always state that “how you place your feet on the ground will reflect on all joints above”, in this case, right up to the shoulders and neck.
Next time you are out walking watch people, see how they move, notice discrepancies with their posture, since so many stand, walk or run incorrectly. Many people walk with their head forward slightly extending the neck. We call this Forward Head Posture (FHP). You could be standing straight but your ears are not in line with your shoulders.This is something I look for prior to Bowen therapy treatments.
For example, if you tend to lead with your head even as little as even 2.5cm when walking, it can put an extra 4kg weight on your neck and shoulder muscles.If 1.25cm then it would be approximately 2kg.
Habitual FHP can, over time, contribute to degenerative disc disease, joint problems, herniation of disc, misalignment of the tempo mandibular joint (TMJ) and headaches/migraines. It can also affect the lower back since the top of the spine known as the axis is opposite to the coccyx (tail bone) and what effects the lower end of the spine can affect the upper and vice versa.
We might refer to this as poor biomechanical use of the body.
Other contributing factors in neck pain:
- Sleeping in a wrong position, such as on your stomach then twisting your neck on the pillow, or on a pillow that is too high/low and does not support you correctly
- Jerking the neck during exercise
- Spending periods of time resting your head on an upright fist or arm, a habit often seen among students in lectures
- Sitting at a desk for too long without a break, particularly if it’s the incorrect height coupled with poor seating and back support
- Hunching over computers and smart phones
- Holding your head in a forward or awkward position for long periods while working, watching TV, using a smart phone, reading or holding the telephone whilst talking, particularly if your habit is to crook the phone under your neck so you can continue doing other tasks
- Certain types of work such as painting the ceiling or other overhead work so you crook your neck for a long time
- Head stands, such as in gymnastics, yoga and pilates, particularly those exercises that require you to put weight on the upper back and shoulder area whilst raising your legs
- Ballet dancing especially on the “point” puts tremendous stress not just on all foot and ankle bones but the entire spine right up to axis and neck.
- Sinusitis can actually trigger neck pain because of the location of the sphenoid sinuses. Sinus headaches can trigger radial pain on the top of the head and back of the neck.
- Ear disorders, such as earache, swimmers ear, foreign object in the ear, ruptured ear drum, labyrinthitis, (inflammation of the labyrinth a part of the inner ear helping to control balance)
- Digestive stress, digestive reflux (now often referred to as GERD), celiac disease
- Minor nerve root compression affecting T1-T4
- Ageing joints, in particular osteoarthritis (often referred to as cervical spondylosis or cervical osteoarthritis), and especially when bone spurs restrict joint movement and flexibility, generating pain in the neck. Osteoarthritis is referred to as a process of ageing and degeneration where the cervical spine gradually breaks down and loses fluid, thus restricting movement and causing stiffness.
- Herniation of discs including bone spurs can cause pressure on nerves branching out from the spinal cord.This will generate neck pain.
- Whiplash from impact accidents, commonly associated with vehicle collisions
- Fibromyalgia causes muscle pain throughout the body and can contribute to neck pain.
- Osteoporosis can weaken bones contributing to small fractures and breaks including in cervical vertebrae.
- Thyroid cancer/nodules. Not all nodules are cancerous but swellings can cause some neck discomfort
Medications can trigger pain
Certain drugs can trigger tension in the upper back and shoulders especially when associated with eye movement.
Ocular muscles that move the eye are also involved in feedback to the brain along with stimulating the neck muscles. Often referred to as a postural reflex occurring when focusing on a target, the neck muscles activate allowing head movement in the direction of the eyes.This close connection between eye movements and neck muscles occurs without us thinking about it on a conscious level.
Glaucoma medications can contribute to neck tension. Prostaglandin analogues (the most popular glaucoma drops), act as messenger molecules regulating contraction and relaxation of smooth muscles and can overstimulate ocular muscles.The signal is relayed via neural pathways to the vestibular region in the brain that coordinates postural reflex muscles in the neck! If you take glaucoma medications that are prostaglandin analogues and you are experiencing persistent neck tension despite treatment, then you may wish to change the medications.
The interesting thing is that it is very important to free up tension in the neck if you suffer from brain disorders, macular degeneration or glaucoma, and chronic sinusitis so that blood and lymph can circulate evenly and efficiently.
So many drugs trigger side effects and often it’s the ones you have been prescribed for a particular disorder that in turn exacerbate your disorder! You may take them for the disease/injury but you discover other symptoms arise over time. Some sensitive people may react in a 24 hour period.
Drugs that have been noted to contribute to neck pain include Atapryl, Carbex, L-Deprenyl, Eldepryl and Selegiline used to treat Parkinson’s disease and tremors. Nefazodone, an anti-depressant (removed from the market in several countries due to liver toxicity) appears to be still scripted in Australia, and Serzone, again an anti-depressant which has been noted to affect brain chemicals leading to depression. No logic here!
How Bowen Therapy can help
These are just a few common disorders of the neck where this therapy helps:
During hormonal change (menopause) I have observed some women complain about tingling and weakness in their forearms or hands. Poor posture and hormonal change can contribute to this but the neck is what must be treated to free up tension and misalignment.
RSI, tennis elbow and carpel tunnel syndrome would require regular neck treatments to free up misalignment, tension and sometimes pinched nerves due to constriction of tissues and/or fascia.
Short leg syndrome. Aside from other specific techniques applied during a treatment, the sterna mastoid muscle must be treated quite firmly. Often this can be a bit painful initially but once freed up it can help with adjusting the shorter leg.
Whiplash. This can be minor or severe. Depending on each individual case the neck can be treated gently with Bowen therapy and, over time, strengthening exercises would be encouraged to give strength and help with recovery. Inflammation can be treated with acupuncture or combined with anti-inflammatory remedies such as Arnica.
Dizziness can result from neck tension/pain and misalignment since the head position is very important for equilibrium. Headaches can also occur with the dizziness. When neck pain is resolved often the dizzy spells cease.
TMJ misalignment, sinusitis, headaches, postural problems as noted above, fibromyalgia, labyrinthitis, (including homoeopathics/herbs) and all digestive disorders (including relevant remedies).
Ocular hypertension and glaucoma
Joint disorders can be improved but degeneration cannot be reversed. However, I work at stabilising this disorder with treatment and supporting remedies.
Education in improving body posture is extremely important and everyone needs to practise this on a daily basis. By applying such exercises you will gradually retrain the body to let go of bad habits and help to avoid ongoing neck pain.
Don’t delay arrange for a treatment now. The longer you leave it, the worse it will get.
Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804