Sunday, 29 June 2014

Your neck                

         . . . how to help keep it flexible and pain free!

I believe that when contemplating an exercise it helps to understand the physiology (in this case of the neck) so that I know how and why the exercise works - so having read and talked to many experts in the physio world - here's Massage By Isobel's much condensed guide to the neck - in plain English!

Your neck is made up of 7 (cervical) vertebrae arranged in a clever arch that perfectly balances 10-12lbs of head with as much strength, grace and ingenuity as a suspension bridge.

In between each of the 7 vertebrae are discs. These act as shock absorbers and gliding surfaces to help to the neck to seamlessly pivot in an extraordinary range of movement.  

Discs work on a "suck and squirt" basis. They are filled with water. When your head looks down the movement squashes the vertebrae at the front of the disc – which squirts water out of the back. When you look up again the disc sucks in fresh water to plump itself up again.

The re-hydration of the disc is vital to your neck's health. Without a regular top-up your disc flattens and your vertebrae rub together - like a car running on a flat tyre. Massage, physiotherapy and exercise can help to mobilise your discs to enable them to re-hydrate.

Facet joints control how far the vertebral column can tilt. The surface of each facet joint rides over its opposing surface allowing movement to a certain point and then grips the vertebrae above/below it so as to stop movement.  A damaged facet joint is a very painful thing and a sure sign that your back needs attention! Manipulation is needed to free the joint and then self-help exercises will keep it loose and strong.

Much of the neck's power comes from the upper (thoracic) back - imagine a glove puppet. This, in the main part involves the rib cage and the trapezius muscle which runs from the base of your skull to just above your waist and out to the tip of each of your shoulders.

The trapezius is responsible for holding your head up in the right position and only gets to rest when you are sleeping (this is why your mouth drops open if you fall asleep sitting up!). The other muscle at the front of your neck draws the head forward and keeps the chin down.  Its all about keeping your eyes front and centre!

These muscles help to control the movement of your head but will go into protective mode if threatened such as a whiplash type injury, or sometimes just sleeping badly.

Once the muscles lock down they compress the discs which leads to more problems later on. Massage can release the muscle spasm and so prevent further injury.

Finally, your central/main nerve runs from your brain, down the middle of the spinal column. It branches out at regular intervals from your spine in pairs - one left, one right reaching  the furthest extremities of your body - your little finger tips and your little toes!

A dehydrated disc in the neck  can cause the vertebrae and associated joints to pinch the nerve causing "referred pain" which may manifest as headaches, shooting pains down the arms or even a pins and needles sensation or numbness to the hand.

Loosening tightened muscles and mobilising a stiffened joint will help the discs to re-hydrate, plump up and ease out most problems.  This can be done by your masseuse (I recommend Massage By Isobel) or your local Physiotherapist but you can also play a major part in your own neck's health. Joints can be "un-knotted"  and you can reverse the painful results no matter how badly or unlikely it would seem.

Self Help 

I have chosen the following exercises, some from Sarah Key's "Keep your joints young" book ( a must have for anyone who wants to truely understand their injuries and seeks self-help), some from my colleagues and most from yoga.  

I really do believe that yoga should be taught at schools and be part of our everyday life. The more I get to know of it the more amazed I am by it and how such an ancient disipline can be so relevant to today's stresses and strains.

Its my belief that even a sore neck should be kept moving even if its just a small amount.  It is the movement of the joints that help the discs to recover and to maintain their health. This will keep most spinal problems at bay.  

If you are in any doubt then please consult your GP, or qualified physical therapist.

It is better to do these exercises at the end of each and every day


1. Loosen shoulders and arms by shaking out the arms and circling the shoulders first forwards and then backward.

2. Circle the arms to release the thorax/upper back.  Circle alternate arms forwards and then backwards 3 times each way.

3. Six Points

The key words here are slowly and breathe. Do not force the head just let its own weight do the work for you. Be aware of your shoulders - they should not raise up - keep them down.

Sit comfortably with the feet flat on the ground.  Take a deep breath in and then, exhaling lower the chin to your chest (it doesn't matter how far you can get even a little movement will be beneficial). Hold for as long as is comfortable - take a breath then exhaling go back to centre.

Inhale and then exhaling  raise the chin to the ceiling - inhale and hold, exhale and go back to centre.

Take a breath in then exhale whilst turning your head to look over one shoulder, hold and breathe in then exhale and return to centre - repeat to the other shoulder.  Make sure those shoulders are not raising up.

Take a breath. Finally exhale and lower your right ear as if to rest on the right shoulder, hold the stretch breath in and on the outward breath return to centre.  Repeat to the other side.

4. Rolling Up a Wall

Find a clear space of wall. Sit sideways into the wall with your bottom as close to it as possible.

Roll onto your back and swing your legs up the wall stretching your arms out along the floor above your head.

Bend your legs at the knees as in the picture, keeping your feet flat against the wall.

With your arms straight above your head, fingers interlaced and palms turned away, pull your shoulder blades around to the side of your chest wall so that you don't roll on them.

Pull your stomach in tight and tip your pelvis back to round your lower back and roll up your spine.

Try to get right up your spine to the base of your neck. Try to bear the weight through the shoulders and upper ribs.  This will cause marked stretching sensation at the back of your neck.  Hold for 30 seconds, keeping your buttocks clenched and pushing your pelvis forward.  Then roll down your spine, one vertebrae at a time to rest your bottom on the floor.

Repeat twice. do NOT move your head whilst doing this exercise.


5.The Plough

Place a stool about 18" from a folded blanket or pillow on the floor.

Lie on your back, positioning your shoulders on the folded blanket with the stool beyond your head as in the picture.  the blanket should be placed to allow a step-down at the point where your thorax becomes your neck- this allows your neck to float freely.  The more uncomfortable your neck feels the higher the step-down needs to be made.

Raise both legs up and swing them smoothly over your head so that your feet rest on the stool behind your head, supporting your bottom with your hands (arms bent at the elbows).

Hold this position for as long as you can - up to 2 mins if possible. Keep relaxed and breathe evenly all the time.  You will feel painful stretches during this exercise that can only be  eased by breathing through it.

Keeping your chin tucked in, roll down slowly either completely or part-way.  Roll back up into the pose.

Roll back and forth along the spine several times.  As you get more adept at the rolling the spine will loosen and you will find you can progress further by removing the stool and allowing your knees to bend down towards your forehead.  Stay there for 30 seconds breathing through any pain to achieve relaxation.


6. The Kneeling Neck Twist

I know - really ungainly - but so worth it! This posture will give a sensation of discomfort where the upper ribs join the spine.  To maximise the stretch lift your thighs up to almost vertical pushing your cheek into the floor.

Kneel on your hands and knees lower your face to rest on the right had side cheek on the floor.

Try to keep your bottom as high above your heels as you can. The higher your bottom the better the stretch.

One by one slowly place your arms by your sides and hold the position for one minute breathing gently.  You can place your hands beside your face to lessen the pressure on your cheek if you feel the need.

Come out of the pose by bringing your arms up one at a time and lift the weight off your neck.

Lower yourself again and turn your face to the other cheek.

7. The Headstand

Now, I am really not convinced about this one BUT all the powers that be say that, done properly, the headstand is an extremely beneficial exercise, not only to strengthen the neck but for all sorts of other reasons. 3 minutes a day is optimum.

It should always be undertaken with care and the neck should never be moved while you are in position.

Place a folded blanket or pad in front of a wall

Kneeling in front of the wall interlace your fingers and make a "V" shape with your forearms on the floor just wide enough to place the crown of your head on the blanket in between.

Straighten your legs as you take weight on your head on the floor then kick up with one leg first.

After both legs are straight take as much WEIGHT THROUGH YOUR FOREARMS as possible, making your neck long and your body as straight and light as possible.

While in position use your neck and body to push up to lessen cervical compression.  This is hard work for your arms and shoulders. Work up from a few seconds to 3 minutes and only do this once a day.

Should you need any further advice or have any questions about the above please do not hesitate to contact me on Facebook - Massage by Isobel, via my website, by email or by phone 07808 791 168.

Acknowlegement to Sarah Key "Keep your Joints young"

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