There is a popular series of YouTube videos in which a chiropractor performs “Ring Dingers.” The patient lies face-up on a special table with pegs to secure their hips. The doctor stands behind the patient’s head, wraps a towel around their neck, and gives a sharp tug that causes a cascading series of loud “pops” down the entire spine. The doc responds, “Oh Yeah – Home Run!” while the patient stares blankly into space for several seconds and says something like, “Holy crap on a cracker!” Certainly, Ring Dingers may be a valuable treatment method for some, but is it the best way to deal with chronic neck pain?
If you are over the age of 20, there is a one-in-five chance you are currently suffering from some degree of neck pain. Who is at risk? In a recent worldwide study, the highest prevalence of neck pain was associated with those perform occupational activities while sitting or leaning, are widowed or separated, have two or more diseases, have low income, or are poorly educated.
The first step in dealing with a long-term solution to this issue is to consider that there are numerous medical approaches to address the symptoms of neck pain, such as physical therapy and chiropractic adjustments. Rather than discussing these treatments, let’s look at some “proactive methods” that may prevent pain from happening in the first place. However, before going any further, let’s start with this disclaimer: “Sometimes, the best medicine is medicine!”
If you have neck pain and your doctor prescribes a treatment, do what he or she recommends! Don’t say, “Well Doc, I know you want to operate to repair that disc, but I just read this article that said all my neck pain would go away if I use a standing desk -- so let’s hold off.” Further, before performing any stretching or strengthening exercise for your neck, seek out a trainer or therapist who can teach you how to do them properly.
With that background, here are eight action steps that may help you from becoming a neck care statistic:
1. Get a New Pillow. You spend a third of your life asleep, so make certain your pillow fits. Resting your head on a pillow that is too big or too small such that the natural curve of your neck is not followed, may cause neck pain. What is the right kind of pillow? Start by asking a chiropractor or physical therapist what pillow they believe would be best for you.
Rather than shopping online, visit several bed stores with a knowledgeable sales staff who know their products. How do you know if they are knowledgeable? Well, if they don’t ask you if you sleep on your side or back before offering you choices, go somewhere else. Moreover, after you buy it, take it to your health care professional and have them determine if you made the right choice.
A memory foam pillow may seem like the best option as the material molds to the shape of your head, but some complain that it takes too long for the pillow to adjust to one position. Further, these pillows retain body heat and as such may be uncomfortable in warm, humid climates; there is also concern about their smell and possible toxic chemical issues with cheaper brands. Moving on, what about the shredded polyfoam pillow called, My Pillow?
“My Pillow” is the personification of the American dream, as Michael J. Lindell’s company has sold over 25 million pillows and has 1500 employees. The pillows use interlocking fills, and they advertise that its interlocking foam pieces offer an “exact custom fit.” Consumer Reports conducted a survey of 18 staff members who tried it, noting that most who bought it said they did so to help alleviate a specific sleep problem. The investigators concluded, “Half of the 18 staffers said it helped a lot, 17 percent said it helped a little, and 33 percent said it didn’t help at all. Only one-third of the group said they would buy My Pillow again.” Bottom line, there are no absolutes about what pillow is best, and often you have to experiment.
2. Practice Corrective Exercise. The basis of corrective exercise is to “Stretch what’s tight, strengthen what’s weak!” A round-shouldered/forward head posture is characterized by an exaggerated curvature of the upper back that usually causes a forward positioning of the head.
It’s estimated that for every inch the head shifts forward from optimal alignment, the stress on specific neck muscles increases by 10 pounds. Two inches of forward head posture means an additional 20 pounds of pressure on the specific neck muscles, a stress that can result in chronic muscle pain. Over a long period, issues such as osteoporosis and disk degeneration may result.
Corrective exercise is especially important if you play a sport, as sports emphasize specific muscles and as such can create muscle imbalances. In the weightroom, overemphasis on specific exercises can cause muscle imbalances. The most obvious example is the bench press, which can contribute to a round shoulders/forward head posture due to the overdevelopment of the pectorals and the anterior (front) deltoids.
Among those muscles that are tight with round shoulders/forward head posture, and thus need to be stretched, are the upper trapezius, elevator scapulae, sternocleidomastoid, scalene, latissimus dorsi, teres major, subscapularis, pectoralis major, and pectoralis minor. Among the muscles that need strengthening are the cervical flexors, serratus anterior, rhomboids, mid-trapezius, lower trapezius, teres minor, and infraspinatus. That’s quite a list, so book a session with a trainer or appropriate health care professional to learn the best exercises to correct this condition.
3. Adjust Your Work Station. Although standing desks are known for their many benefits, they can also be good for your neck. Often with sitting, after long periods you fall into a rounded shoulders/forward head posture. But whether you sit or stand (or a combination of both), your eyes should be focused just slightly above the center of your computer monitor. Most monitor stands are too low, so with a seated desk, you may have to prompt them up with a book.
4. Use a Headset. If you use a smartphone or a landline (do they still make those?), you will often be tilting your head to one side for long periods, and this practice may eventually result in neck pain. A headset can also keep your hands free and, as a bonus, avoid bombarding your brain with cell phone radiation!
5. Take a Foam Roller Time-Out. Foam rollers are high-density foam logs; the standard size is 6 inches by 36 inches. Resting face-up on a foam roller, lengthwise, is a simple way to help relax your neck muscles and align your spine. And by extending your arms out to the side and rocking gently side-to-side, they can help stretch tight pectoral muscles. It would also be a wise investment to seek out a personal trainer, chiropractor, or physical therapist to teach you other valuable movements that can be performed on a foam roller to improve your posture.
6. Buy a Lumbar Support for Your Car Seat. If you drive a lot, spend a few bucks and get a lumbar support for your car seat. You can also get dumbbell-shaped foam rollers that can be placed against your lower and middle back to help align your neck and spine when you drive.
7. Fix Your Feet. The feet are the foundation of the body, and if there is a structural problem with your feet, it can affect your neck posture. For example, if the arches of the feet are collapsed inward (valgus feet), this will cause the leg bones to rotate and exaggerate the curves in the lower back and upper back. Arch supports, or better yet orthotics prescribed by a podiatrist, may resolve postural issues responsible for pain.
8. Get a Soft Tissue Treatment. Often adhesions can develop in the muscles that can affect natural movements and lead to chronic pain. Conventional massages such as Swedish may help, but ART is the “go to” treatment of choice effective in treating alterations in muscle tension and texture.
ART is an acronym for Active Release Techniques™ Treatment developed by Dr. Michael Leahy. Another popular type of soft tissue treatment is dry needling based on the neurophysiology of trigger points. Treatment involves applying electricity through needles to address muscle spams and increase microcirculation.
It’s true that in recent years there have been considerable advances in pain management and physical medicine, and of course, there is always the surgical option. But rather than taking such a reactive approach to dealing with neck pain, adopt a proactive plan using the advice in this article to avoid developing neck pain in the first place.