The neck is a very common area for muscles to become tight and cause pain, especially for people who regularly sit at a desk for work. Since we were not made to be stationary creatures, our bodies are not well-adapted to the 8-hour sedentary workday. On top of being inactive, we also tend to be slouched forward and looking at a screen for most of the day. These factors, combined with the repetitive nature of day jobs, are a recipe for poor posture, tight muscles and neck pain. In this article, we’ll cover why neck muscle tightness occurs and how you can treat it yourself with 3 simple stretches.
We’ve all heard the phrase above, modified from the original law of inertia, which states that an object in motion stays in motion — and for the most part, it’s true for the body. When we consistently move our joints and muscles, they tend to keep working efficiently and painlessly. The opposite is also true, however. When we sit for long periods (most times at a desk or looking down at a phone), our muscles and joints of the neck become tight and stiff, which prevents them from moving well. Then, after a period of disuse, when we try to move them again, it’s painful. This leads to the phenomenon known as the pain cycle. When an activity or motion hurts, we tend to avoid doing it, which in turn leads to less movement and more stiffness, perpetuating the cycle. Several factors can lead to this problem. Luckily we can control these factors with some anatomy knowledge and simple exercises.
The neck, just like the lower back, has its own group of “core” muscles, otherwise known as postural muscles. These muscles, collectively called deep neck flexors or longus colli, attach directly to the vertebra in the neck and are responsible for holding the head up against gravity for long periods of time. In other words, they are built for endurance. Unfortunately, they often become weakened from having poor posture over time. When they become weak, other surrounding muscles compensate by trying to do their work for them. The muscles primarily responsible for these compensations are the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and scalenes. These muscle groups are not made to be endurance muscles. They are actually power muscles, and they tire out quickly. The upper traps, for instance, are responsible for shrugging the shoulders and holding the shoulder blades steady when hauling something heavy over the shoulder. Thus, when forced to work for long periods just to hold the head up, they become tight and painful. Fortunately, there are easy ways to combat this issue.
To avoid having neck muscles that are stiff and painful, start with maintaining good posture as often as possible, whether sitting at a workstation or standing in line at a grocery store. This means holding the head and neck directly on top of the spine, keeping the shoulders pulled back, and slightly retracting the shoulder blades. The shoulders should not be elevated, the neck muscles should be relaxed, and the arms should lay comfortably by the sides. While this posture may be difficult to maintain for long periods if you’ve never practiced it before, your endurance will build with consistency over time. If you find yourself, however, in an unfortunate episode of neck pain or neck tightness, there are ways to self-treat without having to take medications or visit a doctor.
More often than not, people who experience neck pain, stiffness, or tightness have decreased flexibility in the power muscles of the neck. These are also called fast-twitch muscles because they contain different types of fibers that wear out quicker than slow-twitch muscles. As you may expect, fast-twitch muscles fire quickly and for a short time; slow-twitch muscles fire slower and work for long periods of time. In either case, if you want to improve the flexibility of muscles, the first thing you need to do is stretch them. Here are a few easy stretches to try at home, work, or after a workout to improve neck muscle flexibility.
Avoiding neck muscle tightness in today’s world can be difficult with life’s constant need to be looking at a screen. If you take the time to address your posture and incorporate these simple exercises into your daily routine, however, you may be able to keep your neck moving pain-free for years to come. If you are having neck pain that doesn’t seem to be going away, the professionals at Skye Health are here to help. Contact us today to learn more.