Dr. Betsy Scudder, PT DPT Cert MDT, Restore Physical Therapy & Wellness
Pain in the neck… And, no, I’m not talking about your annoying neighbor or co-worker!
I’m talking about a legitimate neck pain – the kind that makes you stop what you are doing, rub your neck and roll your head around. Or, one that you wake up with in the morning or middle of the night.
Most everyone over the age of 20 experiences this every once in while, and for an estimated 60-80% of the working population, neck pain can be a more long-term problem (Carroll LJ, et al, Spine 2008).
As a physical therapist, I teach patients every day – multiple times a day – what they can do on their own to deal with a pain in the neck. Here are my top five favorites:
1.) CORRECT YOUR POSTURE. In real estate, the mantra is “Location, location, location.” In physical therapy, it’s “Posture, posture, posture.” The absolute first thing you must do if your neck is screaming at you is stop texting/computering/reading-in-bed, realign your posture so that your head is back over your shoulders and your shoulders are over your hips. Your head also needs to be in midline between your shoulders – meaning, not tilted or rotated to one side more than the other.
2.) GET RID OF THE “C” AND FIND THE “S”: Poor posture makes you look like a big capital letter C slumped in a chair. Posture correction starts at the bottom of the spine. So, sit tall and push your lower back forward – either with your own muscles or by using a lumbar roll between the back of a chair and your body (I recommend the McKenzie Original Lumbar Roll). Once you achieve that, your shoulders will push backward and your head will slide back as well. The natural S-shaped curve of the spine (looking at your body from the side) will be restored. This also happens naturally when you get out of the sitting position and simply stand up.
3.) THINK LIKE A GOLFER. Think about a golf ball on a golf tee. If the tee is pitched forward, to one side, or bent, that ball is just going to roll right off the tee – there goes your golf game! Your spinal column is the tee for your head. You must get your spinal column righted in order to keep your head comfortably positioned at the top of it. This significantly reduces the formation of joint, disc, or nerve derangements that are the primary source of neck pain.
4.) GIVE YOUR MUSCLES A BREAK. Now, think of a bowling ball – maybe a 10-11 pound ball. Think about holding that ball in both hands out in front of you with your elbows straight. Hold it there for 1 minute. 5 minutes. 15 minutes. Ahhh! Your shoulder muscles, biceps, triceps, forearms, and even your hand muscles will be contracted up like vices trying to help keep your bowling ball in this awkward position.
This is basically what happens to your neck muscles when your head is jutted forward over your lap due to a poor C-shaped posture. So, again, by correcting your posture you will allow your neck muscles to relax – reducing a common secondary source of pain, muscular trigger points.
5.) KNOW THAT MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE. While over the counter and prescription medicines have their place in pain control, they are not without their side effects. The American Physical Therapy Association launched their #ChoosePT Campaign earlier this year in response to the CDC’s announcement that physical therapy is one of the primary safe and effective non-opioid ways to treat pain.
A press release by the APTA in June 2016 stated: “According to the CDC, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids has nearly quadrupled since 1999, and in 2012 enough opioid prescriptions were written for ‘every American adult to have their own bottle of pills.’”
Opioids and other pain-relieving medications only mask the sensation of pain; they do nothing to affect a change in the source of the pain. While a physician can only spend enough time with you to write out a pill prescription, a physical therapist trained in the mechanical diagnosis and treatment method (MDT) can take the time to fully evaluate your pain response to movement to determine your body’s directional preference. That is, determining the one or two movements of your neck that can alleviate your symptoms. These are most often movements performed in the opposite direction of your common movements or positions and are performed to end range.
A pain in the neck is a little (or big) warning sign going off in your brain letting you know its time to correct your posture and move your body in a different way. Listen to that signal! And, if that doesn’t do the trick, come see a PT (one with direct access licensure) before you see your doctor… he/she may just send you right over to us anyway!
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