The neck can be a particularly annoying place to get that nagging ache and feeling of tightness. It can be distracting and hard to work out. I personally get frequent headaches as a result of neck tension, and have tried many things to help relieve the tension that builds up in the neck as a result of posture, stress, and just living life. Today I'll go through a few of the self-help tricks you can use to loosen up your neck, with a focus on the base of skull muscles, the suboccipitals, and the other muscles that also connect to the area.
As always, I really really recommend seeking out a professional if this is an ongoing problem. Some of the techniques here I am passing along as they have helped others, but they don't work for everyone, and I often find myself going to a well-trained therapist in order to finally find relief from this problem. Additionally, it's good to screen for other, more serious problems. If your neck is so tight you can't move your head and you have a bad headache with it, you need to hop a ride to the Emergency Room, meningitis isn't something to mess with.
We'll start with a look at the muscles in the neck, then a few tricks on how to find some relief for neck tension. If you need to, you can review my post on "How Muscles Work", and we will be talking about some of the Trigger Points in the neck if you need a brief review see my post on "Trigger Points".
The suboccipital muscles lie just beneath the base of the skull, you can feel them when you run your hand along the underside of the bony back of your head.
The pattern of tension can develop from the posture a lot of us use every day: looking down. When you jut your head forward and look down at your phone, your book, your computer, it really puts strain on the suboccipital muscle group. To help correct this, we will use a combination of direct self-massage, some mobility stretching, and a few exercises to help diffuse the tension and allow some of the other muscles to do their job if this area is being a little overactive.
If you have a lot of tension here, it may take a lot of pressure to get into the deep layer of the suboccipital muscles. While you can try massaging these muscles with just your hand, it will certainly be a lot more comfortable to use a rounded tool, such as the knobbler, or a tennis ball. Laying face up, move the tool just below the base of your skull, to either side of the spine (not ON the spine) and let the weight of your head gradually increase pressure on the neck muscles. You can press and hold on a particular spot, or rock back and forth slowly to loosen up the neck. As you become more familiar with the feeling, you can apply more pressure safely to help release the tension, but I don't recommend pressing for more than 30 seconds at a time at this pressure.
Another phenomenon of pain in the neck is that sometimes where you feel it doesn't necessarily mean that's where it's tight. Pictured above is the trapezius muscle, and it is common for the tension coming from your mid back to actually create enough tension to "pull" all the way up to the neck (the red spots in the image show the referral zone- the pain felt some distance from the trigger point). When you are working your neck, don't leave out these spots, also accessible with a tennis ball (what a versatile tool)!
Simply shift the tennis ball (or whatever tool you are using) to the ares indicated by the X's in the above picture and let your body weight sink into the ball. It may help to visualize your muscles slowly releasing or melting away under the pressure.
To find these spots most accurately, note their location to the nearest bony landmark (like the upper edge of the shoulder blade (5), lower edge of shoulder blade (3), just on top of the bone of the shoulder blade (4), and be careful of the bone on number 6).
Exercise and Stretch
As we've discussed in the past, there are two ways movement works in our muscles: we can aim to stretch (lengthen) a muscle, or we can exercise (contract) a muscle. Many people use the word stretch and exercise interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Both can be useful for helping with neck pain, but the most evidence points toward exercise as being a long-term relief strategy.
When beginning new exercises I always always always recommend working with a professional who can guide you through the steps. They will help you to make sure you are going through the motion in a way that will best recruit the muscles we are trying to target, as well as avoiding injury and addressing concerns you may have as they arise. Remember, exercises are specific to the muscle you are working- running won't strengthen your arms, for example. Don't "wing it", learn the correct movements that will target the neck muscles and supporting groups, and the right weight and speed of contraction to get good results.
Look over this helpful guide written by a personal trainer for some of the exercises that are commonly recommended for this muscle group. The goal here is to help strengthen some of the muscles on the posterior neck and upper back. The reason we want to do this is because these muscles are stressed from holding your head up and forward all day!
Think of it like this: as your head leans forward, the muscles in the back get longer, but they still have to do their job of stabilizing your head. So these muscles are already stretched, what we want to do is strengthen them.
The main goal will be to introduce exercises to strengthen them.
I have to emphasize this. Many people find stretching easier, you just relax and let the muscle lengthen. But again, you need these muscles to get stronger to get the best relief. If you just stretch them, all your doing is making a long muscle longer. You need to add exercises.
OK now that I've called stretching nearly useless, I need to walk that comment back- no it's not. You probably need to do them both, it's just that people tend to ignore the exercise portion of this advice. So let's get into the stretching part!
To stretch the suboccipital muscle group, simply grab a towel and fold it up so that you can still get a handle on it. Place it on the base of the skull just under the curvature of the skull, and do two variations:
1. pull forward and down
2. pull forward and up
There is a drawback to doing this by yourself. When pulling up, you are looking to cause gentle traction on the top of the neck. When you do it yourself you are using the muscles that lift your arms, which means you can't fully stretch them because you are also contracting them. A professional therapist can help a lot in this way.
This article has a few other tips for some self stretching for the neck.
The physiotutors have a great video on fixing trapezius tightness that goes along with this very well.
And check out this video for a few more tips on stretching your neck using a towel.
I hope this helps with this pesky problem! Please let me know if you found any of these tips useful, or if you feel like you understand how your neck works a little better!
This is a follow up to the first post on benefits of exercise, which can be found here.
So you’ve heard exercise is good for you, and you’re like “yeah it’s probably good, but I’m fine, it can’t be as good as just having the evening off to chill at home” which is more like something I have said and I’m projecting it onto you. If you are also like me, then you also need sufficient evidence before you’re going to make any lifestyle changes. So here we go...
Today’s post is the meat-and-potatoes of 'why' exercise is good for you, but maybe more importantly 'how' it is good for you. In most cases, a “trust me, this works” is not really sufficient for us to really understand how something works, and we have a much deeper respect when we see the -why and how- it works.
Ok, exercise is a little good for me.
No, hold up. It’s actually got some amazing nuances to how it changes your mind and body. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges released a report going so far as to call it the closest thing to a “miracle cure”. (http://www.aomrc.org.uk/publications/reports-guidance/exercise-the-miracle-cure-0215/) This report was not just based on a few case studies, but many randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses. Ok maybe not total-miracle-cure-for-everything, (https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h1416) but we have a LOT more evidence for the benefits of exercise compare to, say, some supplements that seem to come in fad cycles. And the best thing is that I’m not trying SELL you anything, this is literally something you just go out and DO. (On the other hand, I really promote the use of a personal trainer on occasion to check up on your form and muscle engagement, as well as the "do as much as you are able" mentality for your particular circumstance.)
Inactivity is a natural result of convenience. But being inactive has become such a problem that many big research groups have given it the pleasant term “Sedentary death syndrome”. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15317985) The phrase is to give you an eerie feeling for a reason: It describes “major public health burden due to its causing multiple chronic diseases and millions of premature deaths each year”. Meaning not just one or two diseases, but like, a BUNCH of them. Even for diseases that don’t necessarily have a direct link to being sedentary, research is pointing more to the likelihood of a sedentary lifestyle making matters much worse.
The problems with NOT exercising:
May be traced to ‘the cause’ of many chronic diseases
The benefits of exercising:
Reduction of chronic inflammation
Reduced risk of chronic disease
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
Lower mortality risk
Improved cognitive function/prevent decline of cognition with age
Improve functional capacity
Relieve some types of pain
Improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity
Improved immune function
What's going on with me, research articles, interesting little blurbs. This blog is an attempt to consolidate research into an easily digestible format.
Alex Moon has been a Licensed Massage Therapist since 2012, did his undergraduate studies at Utah State, and is currently working on his Doctorate in Physical Therapy.