Our necks are amazing! Just think of how many things in a day our necks help us with...watching Netflix, texting on phones, looking both ways when crossing the street and backing out of parking spots just to name a few.
If our neck didn't have so much flexibility we would have to watch TV and text only at eye level, we would have to turn our whole body to look right and left and reversing would be only done with mirrors (scary).
The truth is we don’t think about how much our necks do for us until they start to hurt or stop moving the way we want.
Why do necks become stiff, achy or lose motion?
Have you ever noticed how up right a 2- 5 year sits? It doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing, they hold their head right over their shoulders. Then look at any adult you will notice that their head is not over their shoulder it's out in front of their body.
Slowly over time after years of leaning over books reading, working on computers, driving, sitting on comfy couches our posture changes from holding our heads over our shoulders to leaning out in front of our bodies.
Why does posture matter?
Have you ever tried to paint a ceiling? You get a long pole to attach to the end of your rolling brush and magically now you can stand on the floor to paint versus going up and down a ladder. The trade off for that longer stick is that it’s harder to hold out in front of you. It is much lighter to brush right over your head compared to holding the brush at 45 deg to paint in front of you. What you’re fighting is the added weight from gravity. When the stick is held straight up and down the effects of gravity are less then when it’s held out at an angle in front of you.
This is the same thing that happens to your neck when your head starts to shift forward. Your neck muscles have to constantly work to hold your head up; versus having to do no work if your head is over your shoulders. Over time this change in head position causes things to wear down (muscles, joints, and/ or ligament) from the extra persistent strain.
How do you know if your neck is starting to become permanently hurt?
Neck issues all start with either mild symptoms that can come and go intermittently or constant mild ache that is manageable. Unfortunately, this means most people simply work through or ignore the pain.
Examples of how neck pain can start are: frequently waking up with a stiff neck, feeling the urge to pop your neck, not being able to turn, bend or flex your head the same amount from right to left, and/ or getting stress headaches.
Over time these mild symptoms progressive becoming more painful or happen more frequently until they can no longer be ignored.
What happens when you wait to see a doctor?
Many people wait to see a doctor until they have numbness or tingling going down their arm, they can’t sleep, can’t concentrate at work, or can’t watch movies without severe pain.
When the doctor orders the x-ray it shows joint degeneration. Now your doctor refers you to a neck surgeon for MRI, injections, and very possible surgery.
The pain in your neck, possible with tingling down your arm, is so severe that every aspect of your life revolves around your neck. Now you feel there is no option but to have surgery. You just need to be out of pain, so you can enjoy your friends, your family, go for a run, work at your computer without feeling pain. Rebuild some of the relationships that have been strained by your short temper or you having to cancel at the last minute because the pain was so bad.
After the surgery you have minimal to NO neck pain! You have a short 4-8 weeks of rehab if any...then you are back to your life feeling good. That's the end right...you're all fixed!
Unfortunately, for many this is just surgery #1
This is the pitfall of cervical fusions.
Each bone in your neck is designed to move independently allowing you to bend, flex and rotate your head for all the things you love.
When you connect two of the bones together then you alter how the whole neck moves. To allow for the same motion the joints above and below the fusion have to move more.
As mentioned before, the reason the fusion was required was from a joint wearing down from abnormal muscle strength and use. The fusion stops the pain by improving the stability of the original injury but if the cause of the strain is not corrected then the cycle will continue.
(I personally have worked with a woman in her 60s every bone in her neck is fused together. Sadly she still has severe pain despite the fusions.)
Prevention is the best way to stop this horrible cycle
Go see a movement specialist like a Physical Therapist when you first start to notice:
BUT No matter where you are on this journey (mild pain, severe pain, or post surgery) you can improve your neck health returning to your favorite recreational activities.
A physical therapist will complete a hands on assessment of your neck to discover what's happening at each joint, assess your overall posture, look at how your neck moves as a whole and with your body which will help you create a specialized treatment plan for you.
No two people have that exact same anatomy or the same lifestyle so it is important to look at the whole person to create the most effective way to get you back being able to concentrate at work, working out, having more patience with kids and making it to all your social events.
If this is the type of care you are looking for click this link to talk to a PT. If you need a little more information then pick the option below that best fits your needs.
WE HELP ACTIVE ADULTS OVERCOME THEIR ACHES AND PAINS TO GET THEM BACK TO THEIR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES WITHOUT MEDICATION, INJECTIONS OR SURGERIES.
Dr. Molly McDonald