How to Deal with Neck Pain and Work Towards Better Spine Alignment
Is your posture causing recurring pain or stiffness in your neck? If so, it might be time to retrain your spine.
Most of us will experience varying levels of neck pain in our lifetimes, especially as we continue to age—something that's only compounded by a sedentary lifestyle. Neck stiffness and muscular aches are common complaints among office workers and laborers alike. So, how should you deal with neck pain when it inevitably comes on?
In addition to seeking immediate relief, says posture specialist Esther Gokhale, it's vital to take a look at the bigger picture and address the root cause. Gokhale, author of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back ($26.96, barnesandnoble.com), teaches posture workshops around the world that are aimed at getting people back to what she calls "primal posture" for a pain-free life. Her research relies heavily on studying the postures of people throughout different cultures who have, historically, experienced far less pain. Ahead, her best, science-backed tips to help you live life neck pain-free.
Immediate relief is possible.
If you're seeking immediate relief, consider taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen, or visiting your doctor to discuss muscle relievers or pain medications. Massage therapy, hot or cold compresses, and chiropractic adjustments are some of the most common treatments people with neck pain pursue for fast relief to moderate or severe pain. Gokhale looks at these treatments as helpful band-aids in that they may temporarily reduce pain, but they don't address what's causing it. For those suffering from neck pain, she says it's important to take a step beyond immediate relief and start seeking the root cause. For some, this might include an evaluation by a physical therapist or a visit to your general practitioner to rule out non-postural issues.
Seek a long-term solution.
"I think the first instance of mild pain is a good time to begin looking deeper, and looking for a solution that addresses the root of the problem," advises Gokhale, who says that pain is often "nature's way of telling us to stop doing something." Her goal for her patients? "You want to lengthen, strengthen, and remodel your neck to get to the root of almost every kind of musculoskeletal problem," she explains. Gokhale leads workshops around the world that focus on transitioning people with an S-shaped spine to a J-shaped spine, in which the neck isn't craned, but straightened and elongated—while the pelvis curves naturally behind and the rest of the spine stacks easily.
Elongate your neck by lowering your chin slightly.
Gokhale says to forget the old "chin up" adage. To elongate your neck, gently grasp two clumps of hair at the base of your scalp; pull your skull back and up slightly to rotate the head a forward, so that your chin naturally lowers.
Add weight to the top of your head.
Provided that you have no nerve pathology causing your neck pain, add some weight (for example, a flat bean bag) to the top of your head and practice balancing it there. "If you go back in time to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, or visit cultures that today carry weight on their heads, you'll see it's the most efficient place to carry weight," Gokhale explains. "It's extremely effective in finding you that axis along which the spine wants to align; the weight helps inform the way you turn your head on its axis."
Take notice of your tight muscles.
Tight, cramped muscles can be another cause of your neck ailments. To alleviate this strain, roll your shoulders up, back, and down. Take a deep breath—and release the tightness at the front, sides, and back of your neck (repeat until you feel better!).