Let's talk daily neck pain. And relieve it.
If your pain is the result of a recent injury within months of an event, or ongoing pain related to vertebrae fusion, hardware, nerve damage and other diagnoses, please continue seeing your PCP for care and referral. This article is not meant to treat or diagnose neck issues, but rather give an overview of common causes, and exacerbating habits that we as a culture have accumulated.
I have homework for you if daily neck pain (not from serious diagnosis) is affecting your quality of life.
Let's do it.
1) Pillow Talk
2) Sleeping position
3) Getting out of bed
4) Massage or Craniosacral Therapy
5) Head-forward posture and the daily exercise to come out of it
6) Sitting well, Sitting Butterfly: creating a profound foundation for the neck
7) Advanced Holism: function and holographic purpose of Heart-first posture
Pillow talk: causing your neck pain?
Your pillow should allow your neck to feel good first thing in the morning. That would mean your neck actually got the rest it needs.
If your neck pain is present upon waking, you may need a new pillow solution or you may need to give your neck different options of pillows depending on your current level of stiffness, pain or what stage of an inflammation cycle you may be in.
In most cases, its the vertebrae of the neck, not the back of the head, that need support.
The pillow should support you in the nape. When you rest, note how much your head may be held further forward than your chest bone. If its more than an inch or two, your sleeping posture is holding you in a neck-forward, or "front-loading" posture that you are likely to repeat throughout the day.
Let's shoot for a sleeping posture where the nape of the neck is fully supported, allowing the back of the head to be closer to flush with the bed, in line with the whole back.
Keep in mind: the taller / bigger the pillow is, the worse it could be making your pain.
They come fit one, fit all... but for many of us, they don't help.
Until you can find a better pillow, try the smallest pillow in your house, and curl the edge up under your neck.
Here is a list of pillows I recommend trying. They are not too expensive. Remember, each of us have a different size neck, head, and cranium weight, so keep looking if you haven't found the right one.
My favorite! I've actually never been more in love with a pillow, and my pillow that I had before this one kept me out of neck pain for 15 years until it fell apart. This. One. May. Be. It. Comes in Gentle and Firm.
"The principle of efficiency: the body will hold the positions we are in the most for us, whether we are aware of it or not. This is body memory."
The other side of this coin is, if we train our bodies, little by little, more and more, we can create better default patterns that are good for us and we won't have to think about them.
The hours of our life sleeping count toward body memory, so let's think about sleeping position.
These suggestions are for the first moments you are calming down. Of course we do what we do in sleep. With consistant suggestions, the body may choose a better position. It happens.
Back sleeping: fantastic.
Side-sleeping: Please keep your spine and neck straight and either support your upper arm with a pillow or have the top arm resting at your hip. We want to get out of the curled-up fetal position into a position where the chest is open and the neck is long.
Stomach-sleeping: It can be problematic. If you are not having neck pain, nothing to change. If you are having neck pain and its very stiff in the morning due to stomach sleeping, I suggest you check out: Some suggestions about coming out of this habit.
Getting out of bed: an easy win!
Please roll gently to one side and push up with your arms. Sitting up straight from laying on the back will immediately tighten the front neck muscles. Its also a nice way to set the intention early in the day to notice and care for the neck. Little changes like these go a long way. We are starting a gradual process of exchanging neck-forward postures and movements to more balanced ones.
Massage Therapy, Craniosacral Therapy
Regular bodywork of some kind for a distinct window of time should be helpful in reducing distressing symptoms. Under this category is also physical therapy, acupuncture...The list starts there. The higher in severity of the symptoms the more often you may need to go, such as once a week for a month or two if necessary.
For long-standing neck pain, please also see Chronic Pain Recovery in Six Steps.
Head-forward posture, or front-loading
Observe yourself in the mirror so that you can see yourself at profile in a posture that is normal for you. Are the ears stacked in a line above the shoulders? Is the chin in front of the chest? Most of us will have our heads in front of our chest. However, for our spine, nerves, head and neck to function well, ultimately we need to work on getting our chest, or sternum, or heart to be in front of our chins, our heads.
One step at a time.
In a head-forward position, the muscles on the front of the body overpower the muscles that stabilize back.
This is natural response to the demands of most tasks in front of us. In the absence of movements and demands that are more upright our bodies get used to being forward and next thing you know, gravity starts holding us there.
And the compensation patterns start to set up.
Muscle groups in the upper body and neck that are out of balance pull the clavicles, the scapulas, or vertebrae out of proper alignment - which can causes muscle and connective tissue pain and nerve impingements.
So, stretch the front of the body - the neck and chest - and build strength in the back of the upper and middle back.
Over time, the body will learn to keep its muscles in balance.
Your neck will change with this gentle exercise.
Our body responds to the demands on it. We need to re-program balanced demands on the muscle groups supporting the neck, front to back.
We need to enlist the language of the body: frequency (how often we give the body a new demand) and dosage (dosage in this case means length of time we sustain the new demand).
Read these instructions all the way through first before trying this! Getting into it and out of it is very important.
Once or twice a day, lay on your bed so that your whole body is on the bed and only your neck and head is starting lean off the edge of the bed. You decide how much. Find out how much of your head is a gentle stretch, not so severe that you can't stand it. Its really important to come out of the stretch very carefully - gently scooching down toward your feet with the neck relaxed and supported. Then roll to the side as in #3 Getting out of bed.
If you are experiencing pain, lessen the angle of the stretch. Baby steps preferred over leaps of flexibility.
Start at 2-3 minutes at a time for a week. Move up to 5 minutes, once a day and continue for a total of 6-9 weeks. The muscles in the front of your neck will change. They have to. Consistent effort is key. If you forget or drop-off, just pick up again with full effort, no worries.
Sitting well, Sitting Butterfly: profound foundation for the neck
Now we look at the larger journey of coming out of head-first posture, the most common contributor to neck pain. The best results of a long journey come from gentleness and persistence. That is the respectful way to communicate to the body that we have a new program. It will pick up the new pattern and turn it into the default pattern...over time....when we give it time...
And then - my favorite part - you won't have to think about it. Just having an ongoing practice, 20 minutes, once a week, is the minimum that's needed for the body to integrate and create and hold the new pattern (in the absence of a significant diagnosis of the neck or vertebrae). You will feel it after a month.
This Sitting Butterfly exercise has you covered. Click on the link or image to learn a gentle core training.
For most of us, when we sit, there is also slouching forward in the upper and lower body that lets our postural muscles go lax and weak, having little left to support the neck as they are intended.
The head is at least 9lbs and was meant to float on top of the cervical vertebra. This can only happen when the cervical vertebra is floating on top of an upwardly rotating ribcage, which is held up by healthy abdominal muscles, which are cued into their position, or muscle tone, by a healthily toned pelvic floor, which is informed by healthy hips, and legs, and low back.
Sitting habitually in chairs can also lead to a lack of support for the most important nerve / gland / lymph /organ / energy center in the body: the heart.
What would happen if more of us had physiologies that naturally supported our hearts?
Advanced Holism: Head-first to Heart-first posture
One of my teachers says that humankind's journey from head-first to heart-first is a necessary evolution, and as great as any imaginable journey for a soul.
Couple this exercise with Sitting Butterfly. After a month or two, this becomes easy and second nature. Keeping this up is an elegant way to create a default pattern of Heart first physiology. The mind, the emotions, the spiritual, will follow.
Sit in a comfortable posture, preferably without back support, but there can be back support.
Feel if you can, gratitude for a functioning body.
For the curiosity you have to allow you to search for, and implement healthy possibilities.
Find your "sits" bones, proceed to bring the weight of your body directly over them. What part of your body adjusts to hold you there? Notice your breathing. What of your chest or abdomen moves? What doesn't move?
Notice how the gravity of the Earth pulls you to it and allows your body to align with the plumb line of gravity - this also holds you up.
Notice and engage the pelvic floor while you breathe. Engage the abdominals.
Allow your ribcage and heart to hinge upward from the mid-back, and bottom of the ribcage. Allow your head to float above the collarbones....with the heart, sternum, chest, ribcage elevated by the movement.
Your heart is now in front, leading the way. Its a different placement, a different composition. It enacts a new set of responses, and perhaps sensations.
Notice and inquire why its challenging to be "heart-first" in this world. Honor this.
Notice and inquire what comes up for you with the prospect of living "heart-first." Honor this.
Bring awareness to the potential - just the potential - of bringing just a notch more of your availability for physical-mental-emotional-spiritual healing and learning energetic boundaries that protect your "heart-first" way of being. Honor the potential.
Seek and you will find.
.......and more resources
There is a special treatment for the Four Chambers of the Heart that many have found very helpful to revive one's own inner resources in the heart. Ask me for this if it calls to you. Its an in-person guided somatic experience.
More heart-first resources here at HeartMath Institute. They also offer free, monthly, 30-minute trainings in heart resonance designed by Ph.D.'s, to "power-up our intentions to add more heart to our world and incorporate heart intelligence into your day-to-day experiences and interactions." Sign-up for Heart Calls here.
Whether its to relieve your daily neck pain or to develop a heart-first posture or way of being, you will benefit from beginning the journey, along the journey, and when your being has adjusted to a new composition of heart and head. Your physiology will then hold you up, and support your higher well being, including your goals, purpose and joy in life.
That's what health is. To meet the dynamics of life, connected to our inner support and resources.