Does your neck always hurt? Do you get seemingly constant massages, but the pain never seems to go away? Do you reach for your hot pack and a pain reliever more days than not? Welcome to the world of seemingly never ending neck pain.
The good news is, the right PT can probably help!
Usually, when you have a painful spot, you go to that spot to treat… right? Well… wrong. The neck is one of those tricky areas where the pain, in fact, may be coming from the front. If you’ve ever had treatment for low back pain, you may know that your PT often goes to the FRONT of your body to release your hip flexors first. There’s a muscle in your neck that functions very much like the iliopsoas of your low back. I introduce you to: Sternocleidomastoid (or SCM).
Like the iliopsoas, or hip flexor muscle, the SCM runs from back to front, is often weak, and is known for pulling your head forward on your neck – all of these things contribute to an excessive lordosis of the neck, which frequently causes pain in your neck and tightness in the neck muscles that run along your spine. Where do most people think the neck pain is? The back of the neck. Where is it actually coming from? Often times, the SCM!
There are 2 SCM muscles – one on each side. When they fire together, they do neck flexion. When used independently, they do neck side bending to the same side, and neck rotation to the opposite side. While those are the general functions of it, like we said before, when they are weak and short, they can pull the head forward on the body, which causes neck pain. So aside from seeing a PT, you may be asking what else you can do. The answer is always strengthen and stretch! Our bodies CRAVE stability, so, if a joint or area feels unstable to our body, our body’s natural response is to tighten the muscles around that joint to area to add some stability to it. What that means is that we have a tight and weak muscle trying to take over for the muscles that should actually be doing the work. In general, we recommend strengthening first, then stretching… for a couple of reasons… first off, a used muscle is warmed up and more elastic, making it more willing to stretch. Secondly, if your body feels it has gained even a BIT of stability from the strengthening, it will be more willing to let you stretch that muscle.
So the big question: how do I strengthen my SCM? Don’t worry, we won’t suggest that you strap weights to your head… but we do recommend that you use your hands for resistance. Place your hand on either side of your face and gently side bend against the resistance of your hand; then, repeat by gently rotating your head into the resistance of your hand; lastly, place your hand on your forehead and gently flex your neck forward into the resistance of your hand. These seem basic, but they do help activate the SCM and other neck flexors, which will add some strength and stability to your neck. As for stretching, we recommend sitting in a chair and holding onto the seat of the chair with one hand (to anchor that arm), and use the other hand to gently stretch your neck into side bending, then into a combination of flexion with rotation.
Will the above solve all of your neck problems? No. BUT, they will help to re-establish balance and strength.