This week we are heading up to the cervical spine. Try this first stretch to relieve tension in the neck and shoulders. The 2nd exercise can help you correct that forward head posture you may have from too much phone and computer time.
I know I know. You are probably sick of me talking about the thoracic spine, but I can’t help myself. A few months back, I talked about the thoracic spine in my post “Exercises for a Tight Neck and Shoulders“. Today, I want to dive a little deeper and talk about the whole spine and the importance of movement and fluidity especially in the thoracic spine.
For an array of reasons, your spine needs to move fluidly. Proper movement in your spine not only allows you to move properly and avoid injury, but it also helps nourish the discs in your spine and move cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to and from your brain. Today, due to high levels of stress, constant sitting, and working on computers, our spines do not get a lot of chances to move forward, back, side-to-side, and in rotation. The place this shows up the most, is in the thoracic spine.
The thoracic spine is the the middle portion of your spine. The spine should move like a snake – flexible but strong. Imagine you are holding a snake (I know it’s gross, but it’s just pretend), if you hold onto the center of the snake, his head and tail are going to move like crazy! The same thing happens to your back. When we lose movement in our thoracic spines, our necks and low backs become hyper-mobile. This excess of movement puts huge forces on our vulnerable discs and vertebrae and can lead to muscle soreness, nerve pain, and bulging discs.
So, now that I have scared you into moving your spine (I am totally proud of that by the way), let’s give you something you can actually use to help yourself. Below you will find videos to move your thoracic spine in 3 different ways – flexion and extension, lateral movement, and rotation. Do the whole set or pick one from each movement and get your mid-back moving!
Thoracic Mobilization – Flexion/Extension
Thoracic Mobilization – Lateral Shift
Thoracic Mobilization – Rotation
Do me a quick favor. If you are reading this on your computer or your phone, take a quick second and press the top of your head towards to sky, make yourself as tall as possible, and level your chin. Ok, now keep reading. I would hate for my blog post about sore, cranky necks actually cause sore necks. Nobody needs more pains in the neck. Ok, I’ll stop…
In all seriousness, chronic stiff and sore necks and shoulders seems to be a thing people are just “putting up with” these days. That feeling that you want to “pop” your neck or stretch it, or move it to release some tension. We have all had it at one time. If jobs and responsibilities allowed us to move more, allowed us to turn our heads to look at different things, allowed us to view things both up close and at a distance, allowed us to MOVE more, we could probably avoid it, but most of us don’t have that luxury.
So first, let’s understand your neck and shoulder pain. For most people, the issue may not even start at the neck. So all that pulling and popping and stretching you are doing up there, stop for a minute. Most people’s necks are already hyper-mobile, the problem is not that they don’t move, but that they move too much. You have probably heard of “Forward Head Posture”. If you have it, your neck has moved a lot! It is suppose to be sitting right on top of your shoulders, but you are able to move it way out in front! Yes, that is sarcasm.
The position of your head sitting out in front of your shoulders acts as a big ol’ ball and chain on the muscles of the neck, the shoulders, and the upper back. If you would like to understand it more, pick up something that weighs about 20lbs (kids, dogs, and bowling balls all work). Now hold the weight close to your belly and feel the strain on your shoulder and back. Not bad right? Now straighten your arms and press it out in front of you about chest level. Now we are talking. Feel that pull on your shoulders, maybe a little twinge in your low back? You neck pain is a product of the same mechanism.
There is a network of muscles that equally pull your neck forward, backward, and side-to-side. When your head is forward, those muscles become off-balanced. The muscles normally used to pull your head forward and down tend to get short and tight. The muscles that normally pull your head back and up become long and stiff. The side-to-side muscles don’t even know what to do, they are like children watching their parents argue.
The stiffness you normally feel in your neck and shoulders come from those muscles in the back that would normally pull your head back and up. The most common response to these long, stiff muscles is to stretch them. Here is the thing, they are already LONG. They have been stretched day-in and day-out since your forward head posture started. Stretching them will give you temporary relief, but it will not bring you any long-term benefits. What we need to do is lengthen the deep muscles in the front of the neck as we strengthen the posterior muscles.
Ok, but why is your cervical spine moving so much? Well, it is most likely because your thoracic spine is not moving at all. Lack of fluidity in this mid-area of your back tends to make the segments above (neck) and below (low back pain anyone?) move too much. This area tends to get stuck for a few reasons – excessive sitting, lack of core strength, tightness through the chest and diaphragm – all of these can lead to stiffness in the thoracic spine.
So, when you start to address your neck pain, it is important for you to address the stiffness in your thoracic spine first. If you only address your neck pain at the neck, it will come back time and time again. The spine must move fluidly together, that is the basis of all good movement.
Below is a short exercise and stretching routine that will help you relieve your achy neck and shoulders.
*Please note – The exercises above are not medically prescribed. Please check with your physician to check if the exercises are appropriate for you.