Kiss Neck Pain Goodbye
Julian Whitaker, MD
A third of Americans are tormented by neck pain during any given year, and with all the stress we’ve been under, that number has skyrocketed in recent months. Your neck is a prime target of the muscle tension that accompanies chronic stress, giving the expression “a pain in the neck” more than a kernel of truth.
The Importance of Posture
Stress isn’t the only thing that can bring on a stiff, aching neck. Injury, illness, muscle strain, and arthritis are also common culprits. However, most experts agree that the number one cause of mild to moderate neck pain is poor posture—and that good posture can reduce or prevent it.
Your head rests at the top of your neck like a golf ball on a tee. Yet nearly everything we do, such as driving, reading, walking, and eating, we do with our heads tilting slightly forward. Given that the average adult head weighs eight to 10 pounds, that golf ball is actually more like a bowling ball, and your neck and upper back muscles are continually straining to support all that unbalanced weight. Is it any wonder so many of us suffer with neck pain?
Prevent Muscle Spasms and Strains
Poor body mechanics are another common cause of neck pain. Imagine this scenario: Your hands are full, and the telephone is ringing. You manage to grab the phone, but as you twist your head to cradle the receiver between your ear and shoulder, a sudden, severe pain shoots up your neck. You’ve experienced a muscle spasm, and even though the sharp pain fades quickly, you may be left with aching and occasional shooting pain for days or weeks to come.
Muscle strains, which are less acute but similarly painful, result from prolonged wear and tear. If you chronically cradle the phone with your shoulder, hunker over a desk or computer, carry a bag over one shoulder, or simply sleep on an unsupportive pillow, you’re at increased risk. Be conscious of the positioning of your neck, whether you’re sitting, standing, or lying in bed. The key to preventing muscle spasms and strains is awareness. And do your aching muscles a favor—add my favorite neck exercise to your daily routine.
The Atlas Neck Strengthening Exercise
Charles Atlas was a household name for boys of my generation, and more than one of my friends sent off for his program that promised to build muscles, so “bullies won’t kick sand in your face.” This world-famous muscleman claimed that one of his techniques could actually make you taller. I’m not so sure about that, but it does strengthen the neck and upper back muscles, relieve tension, and improve posture.
The chiropractor at Whitaker Wellness has taught his version of this exercise to our patients for more than 10 years. To prevent neck pain, work this exercise into your daily routine.
1. Stand at Ease
Begin by standing in your natural, relaxed position, arms hanging down at your sides. Do not correct your posture—keep your shoulders relaxed and your head slightly tilted forward.
2. Warm Up Your Neck Muscles
Shrug your shoulders, bringing them up as close to your ears as possible. Hold your shoulders up for a count of five, then relax. Repeat three times.
3. Correct Your Posture
After your last stretch, leave your arms hanging at your sides. Lift your chin so you are looking directly ahead, not down. Pull your shoulders back so they are straight. (Don’t pull them back so far they curve behind you.) With your arms at your sides, your thumbs should be aligned with the seams of your pants.
4. Tighten Up and Push Down
From this corrected posture, press your arms firmly against your sides. Shrug your shoulders again, and hold them up tightly (when your posture is correct they won’t go as high). Keeping your upper body muscles tight, slowly push your shoulders down to the count of five. Your chest muscles (pectorals) and upper back/neck muscles (trapezius) should feel tense throughout the exercise. After the count of five, relax your shoulders. Repeat three times.
Effective Therapies for Neck Pain
Although prevention is best, millions of Americans have come to accept a stiff, aching neck as a normal part of life, swallowing muscle relaxants or pain relievers to get through the day. Not a good idea. These drugs, which do nothing to speed recovery or prevent recurrences, have a host of adverse effects. You’re much better off using topical pain relievers such as DMSO and Penetran+Plus, and natural anti-inflammatories like fish oil, bromelain, and turmeric.
However, if you’re looking to ease neck pain and prevent future episodes, try one of the proven therapies we utilize at the Whitaker Wellness Institute.
Chiropractic Is Excellent for Pain
Consumer Reports highlighted a survey of 46,000 people with back pain. To the surprise of many conventional physicians, chiropractic was ranked as the most effective treatment—even above prescription drugs! And a study conducted at Duke University shows that chiropractic manipulation is remarkably effective in preventing headaches that arise from neck problems.
Many of our patients swear by chiropractic, both for treatment and prevention of neck pain and other types of musculoskeletal pain, and I’ve experienced its benefits myself. In addition to relieving pain, chiropractors are well versed in neck exercises and stretches, and can show you how to prevent future neck problems.
Try Therapeutic Massage
References to massage date back thousands of years. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, wrote, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.” Next time your neck is stiff and sore, get a massage. It feels fantastic, relieves pain, and has true therapeutic value. Studies have shown that massage can ease postoperative pain, relieve aching muscles, improve range of motion, increase blood circulation and lymph flow, and even reduce blood pressure and heart rate. In the Consumer Reports survey mentioned above, deep tissue massage ranked second only to chiropractic for relief of pain.
Don’t think of massage as a frivolous luxury but as a powerful therapeutic tool. We recently treated all the employees at the Whitaker Wellness Institute to 15-minute chair massages of the neck and back. They reported that next to a raise, it was one of the nicest things we could have done for them.
Acupuncture Won’t Hurt a Bit
Acupuncture has been used to relieve pain for over 5,000 years, and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in scores of clinical studies in recent years. One study, published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, reported that of 204 patients suffering from chronic pain, 74 percent experienced significant relief that lasted more than three months following acupuncture treatment.
A treatment that involves sticking needles in your body may sound a little scary, but other than an initial pricking or aching sensation, acupuncture is painless and, believe it or not, profoundly relaxing. Acupuncture has greatly increased in popularity over the past few years. Even the National Institutes of Health acknowledged it as a bona fide therapy for pain, and some insurance companies now reimburse for it.
Prolotherapy for Chronic Problems
Chronic neck pain may be caused by weakness of the ligaments and tendons that hold the muscles in place. When they become lax, the resulting misalignment, straining the muscles and impinging on the nerves, can be quite painful. Prolotherapy, which involves injections into the affected ligaments and tendons, corrects the problem by strengthening and stabilizing these supporting structures.
The great thing about prolotherapy is that pain relief is permanent. We’ve seen some amazing recoveries with this therapy at the clinic. Toni, a world-class ballroom dancer, had such severe neck pain that she was unable to dance. After just three injections she was pain-free, and she has returned to competition.
- Make good posture and proper body mechanics a habit, and practice neck strengthening exercises, including the ones mentioned above.
- Invest in a high-quality therapeutic pillow that supports your neck. Several of my patients have said that this alone put a stop to their recurring neck aches. Therapeutic pillows are available in department and specialty stores.
- For a referral to doctors practicing these therapies at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (866) 944-8253.
- The Mainstreaming of Alternative Medicine. Consumer Reports, May 2000.
- Evidence Report: Behavioral and Physical Treatments for Tension-Type and Cervicogenic Headache. Center for Clinical Health Policy Research, Duke University. Foundation for Chiropractic Education and Research, Feb 2001.
- Cheung J. Effect of electro-acupuncture on chronic painful conditions in general medical practice—a 4 years’ study. Am J Chin Med. 1985;13(1-4):33-8.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.