Your neck is made up vertebrae, muscles, ligaments, and discs. The cervical spine is the most movable (and can therefore be the most injured) part of the full spine.
The seven cervical vertebrae are also the only parts of the spine that have openings which allow blood to be carried to the brain, via the vertebral arteries. The spinal cord exits your skull from an opening called the foramen magnum. It then passes down your back and is protected by the vertebrae, which are separated by discs that cushion and provide mobility to the neck. The joints are connected by facets that glide on each other when your neck rotates, or when it flexes forward, backwards, and laterally. From the side, a normal cervical spine has a c-curve, which adds some shock absorption. When you hear about a straight or reversed curve, it means that the vertebrae aren't lined up correctly, that the facets may not be connected properly, and that consequently you may lose some shock absorption.
There are multiple layers of muscles in the front, back, and side of your neck. Their responsibilities range from posture maintenance and movement to just keeping you head upright. Injuries from traumatic events like car accidents, sports injuries, repetitive stress, and even birth, can weaken these muscles and cause more strain to the other muscles. Each vertebra also has openings called neural foramen, which allow the nerves to exit the spinal column and go to the rest of the body. This is how the brain communicates to - and receives information from - the rest of the body. In the neck, these nerves go to the upper chest, neck, face, and arms.
As we age, and also as a result of injuries involving our necks, we can develop bony changes (i.e.: arthritis) in the facets. This can be very painful, and even affect the ability of the nerves that exit the neural foramen. This is why any accident involving your neck, especially whiplash, should be addressed by your chiropractor. If neck injuries are neglected, you may eventually develop a reversed curve and/or arthritis, and the potential of nerve impingement.
Another injury that may occur is a bulging or herniated disc. The material within the disc can put pressure on the spinal column, or the nerves that exit the foramen. If you feel you may have symptoms (most common is tingling and numbness down one or both arms), see your doctor immediately.
Upper-crossed posture- Your head is forward, and your shoulders are rounded. Occurs when you have tight pecs, front neck and shoulder muscles, upper trapezius, levator scapulae, combined with weak muscles between your shoulder blades (lower and middle trapezius, serratus anterior, and rhomboids).
Bad Posture - Your head weighs about 10-15 lbs. and your muscles have to do all the work to keep your head upright, so forward head posture strains the muscles in the back of your neck. Pay attention the next time you look down, when you crank your neck forward at the computer, and when you drive. Have someone take a side picture of you while you're standing. What do you notice? Use the neck exercise techniques to help your posture.
Work-station - What does your workstation look like? If you spend even a short amount of time on the computer, and your computer screen is too low, you should raise it up on a low shelf, so your head isn't tilted down. Is your computer straight in front of you? If it's even off to the side just a little bit, your neck has to strain in rotation. Moving your monitor directly in the center of your line of vision makes a considerable difference.
Phone - I encourage everyone who spends any time on the phone to get a hands-free headset. Cranking your neck to the side shortens your trapezius muscles and can pinch the nerves that go down into your arms. Raise your arms and rest your elbows if you are looking at the screen for any length of time.
Sleeping - If you wake up with neck pain, you either have a pillow that isn't supporting your neck muscles, or you may be sleeping in a posture that is causing muscle spasms. Most chiropractors will agree that sleeping or your stomach isn't the best position for your neck. There are many pillows out there that can help you resolve this problem. Unfortunately, not one pillow will suit every person's needs, so you may have to experiment with different types. Currently, I am fond of a water-based pillow from Chiroflow.
Improper Baggage - Notice how kids carry backpacks that are too heavy for them and adults carry their heavy bags on one shoulder? This could lead to extra weight on the shoulders, and a tendency towards cranking your head to the opposite side for counterbalance. Try to find a properly fitting backpack for your child and try to lighten the load. If you are traveling, think about the weight of your luggage and the way you are carrying your bags.
Traveling - I see so many patients due to the strains of traveling. In the car, your seat should be upright and close to the steering column. For plane travel, you can purchase a travel pillow for your neck. If possible, bring your favorite pillow from home - it's a great way to save your neck from the uncomfortable ones in hotels and guest rooms.
Repetitive Sports - Not that they are necessarily bad habits, but you should remember that sports such as bicycling, tennis, volleyball, rock climbing, and even weight training involve repetition of movement. I see patients who are serious athletes and weekend warriors, and both groups are prone to neck injuries.
Signs and Symptoms
Chiropractors adjust patients every day who show signs and symptoms of nerve impingement. A subluxation is a vertebral misalignment that affects the transmission of nerve impulses from your brain to the rest of your body. What does this mean? If your brain doesn't have full communication to your body via the spinal nerves, then you are prone to many symptoms of dis-ease, which can lead to disease. If you have any symptoms below, call our office, or request an appointment online. Don’t ignore your neck pain.
Sore muscles that don't get better within a few days
Numbness and tingling down your arms and into your fingers
Headaches, including migraines
Jaw pain or clenching
Decreased range of motion
Head feels heavy
Dizziness or vertigo
Were you recently in an auto or other accident?
Exercises for your Neck
Neck Rolls - Tilt your head forward, back, side to side, and rotate your head in clockwise and counterclockwise circles.
Neck Stretch- Tilt your head laterally to one side and push the opposite hand toward the ground. Take notice of any tension, strain, or pain. Move your hand to the front and the back to get deeper stretches. Then switch sides, coming out of it slowly.
Try to do this stretch several times a day.
Neck Strengthener - Do this exercise to build up your weak neck muscles. Lay down on your back, tuck your chin down slightly towards your chest, push you head into the floor for 10 seconds. Then turn your head 10 degrees to either side and repeat. Do this several times a day for maximum benefit. You can do this against any flat surface: in a chair with a high back, in the car at a stop light, and in bed before you get up.
Backwards Shoulder Rolls - Start with small circles 10 times; then do big circles 10 times. Do this any time you feel stressed, and every hour you're at the computer.
Pectoral Stretch - When you have an upper-crossed posture, your pectorals will be tight, and doing this stretch loosens them up. Stand in a doorway or facing a corner. Stick your arms straight out to the sides and bend your elbows 90 degrees, with forearms vertical. Lean into the doorway or corner with your forearms resting against the door frame or wall. Hold for 20 seconds. Do this every hour you are at the computer, or after a long drive.
Pec Variation- While you are sitting or standing, get into the same position, arms extended to the sides and elbow bent 90 degrees. Now, squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times. You will feel your muscles activate, which will counteract the upper-crossed symptoms.
Back Stretch - While you are in the doorway, hold the doorknob on either side with your hands. Stand 1-2 feet away, tilt your head down and lean back. This will give you a good flexion stretch in your neck and upper back muscles. Again, do this stretch after 1 hour at the computer.
This information and suggestions are not intended to be diagnostic in any way nor a substitute for consultation, examination, and treatment by a physician.