Flexibility is good for you.
In an ideal world, we’d have time to do an hour’s stretching every day.
If you haven’t got that time, here is the single stretch with the greatest benefit for most neck problems.
It is for the upper trapezius muscle which runs from the point of your shoulder across to the spine and up to the base of your skull.
When you’re wearing a backpack, this is the muscle the straps are resting on, and it’s what you use when you shrug.
It’s usually the first one to tighten up with stress and lots of bent forward work.
When you see someone with their shoulders held up around their ears, they need this stretch.
This is a simple side-bending stretch, which can be done sitting or standing.
Drop one arm and shoulder down towards the ground and stretch your head sideways away from it, using your other hand to pull your head towards your other shoulder.
Keep the dropped shoulder relaxed.
You can bend your head forward slightly, and rotate it a little, to pull on different fibres of the muscle.
When doing this stretch while sitting, tuck the hand of the dropped arm under your buttock to help keep the shoulder dropped.
If you’re doing this at home, hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then do the same for the other side.
Do two or three stretches if you have time.
In a busy and stressful workplace, even a 10-second stretch from time to time will usually stop the muscle straining and tightening.
A full gym strengthening programme will do a more thorough job of building up the strength
you need to live your busy life.
If you haven’t got room for that, here are the two strengthening exercises which will give you the maximum benefit for the time and effort involved.
The common hunched-forward upper back/poked-chin posture which is the basis of most neck and upper back problems has two main areas of muscle weakness.
One is around the middle back and includes the muscles which anchor and stabilise the shoulder-blades and stop the upper back from drooping forward.
(These include the middle and lower trapezius fibres and the rhomboid muscles.)
The second group that gets really weak are the deep muscles around the front of the neck.
When this happens, the chin pokes out and the joints at the back of the neck bones are compressed,
which can result in joints jamming and trapping of the nerves which run out between the bony vertebrae.
lie on your front, arms by your sides with palms upwards, chin tucked in.
Squeeze your shoulder-blades together, lift your chest slightly up off the ground, and lift your straight arms up so they are just off the ground.
Hold that position for five seconds and then relax.
Do it ten times in a row. This is called a ‘set’.
Rest for a minute, then do another set. Rest for another minute, then do a third set.
Do this exercise at home every day or every second day.
When it becomes easy, move your hands inwards so the knuckles are just above each buttock.
When that becomes easy, do it holding a half-kilogram (one pound) weight in each hand.
Then when that’s easy use a one-kilogram (two pound) weight; then finally progress to a two-kilogram (four pound) weight.
You can stop there – you’re strong enough! If you don’t have hand weights, you can use cans of beans for half-kilogram weights, and one-litre plastic bottles filled with water for the one-kilogram weights, and two-litre bottles for the two-kilogram weights.
lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
Roll your head slightly to tuck your chin in, hold it carefully in, and lift the back ofyour head only a centimetre or two (half an inch) off the floor.
Hold that position for ten seconds, then relax and rest.
Repeat the exercise until you have done it ten times.
It’s most important that this exercise be done accurately – don’t let the chin poke out or the head come too far off the floor.
To start with, if you can’t hold the position for a full ten seconds, just hold it correctly for as long as you can.
Also, if you can’t do ten lifts in a row, just do as many as you can correctly.
Don’t be discouraged if it’s hard – it may take weeks before you are strong enough to manage ten full ten-second lifts in a row.
The reason for these two exercises is to get the muscles strong enough to use during the day to hold your neck and upper back in a neutral position which won’t strain muscles or joints.
This is explained on the next page: ‘Posture’.
This is easier than you think.
The two exercises in the preceding strengthening section will give you the strength you need to hold your neck in a neutral position so that your joints won’t jam, even when you are bending forward.
Posture is the practical daily application of that strength. It’s often explained in a confusing and complicated way and it doesn’t need to be.
Here’s how simple it is:
1 For the neck, hold your chin in a little. Don’t let it poke out.
2 For the upper and middle back, hold your shoulders back and down a little. Don’t let them hunch.
If you’re not sure exactly how far to go, just do both actions as far and as hard as you can,
then relax a little from that position.
Initially you’ll often forget to hold your neck and shoulders like this, but don’t give up –
it becomes automatic with enough practice, and easy when the muscles get stronger.
One indicator that you’re getting it right is that your ear lobe sits vertically above the point of your shoulder.
(You can notice someone getting it badly wrong – seen from side on, the back of their head will sit vertically above the front of their chest.)
In an ideal world, frequent massage would be part of our lives.
Failing that, here are the two massage techniques that are of most use in most neck problems.
You need a massage partner. If you haven’t got someone on hand, find someone else with a neck problem –
which shouldn’t be too difficult!
The main muscles that need massage run from the base of the skull down the back of the neck to below the shoulder blades, and also out to the points of the shoulders.
(The main ones are called the trapezius, rhomboid and levator scapulae muscles.)
When they fatigue and strain, small tears occur which scar up as part of their repair process.
A build-up of this scarring (called adhesive fibrosis) shortens the muscles, lifting the shoulders up towards the ears and pulling the head back so the chin pokes out.
The upper trapezius stretch shown in the stretching section on page 9 is a good daily way of keeping that part of these muscles elastic but if they are scarred enough they will also need massage.
Massage has much more leverage on tight, tough muscle scarring than just stretching – like a rolling pin flattening out a chunk of dough into a pancake.
Deep tissue massage like this shouldn’t be done more than once a week – the tissues need time to recover.
You will need some massage wax, massage oil or cooking oil to let your fingers slide easily over the skin.
Clasp your hands behind your neck, then slide them up onto the back of your head, pulling your hair up and out of the way.
Tuck your chin in so that the muscles at the back of the neck are gently stretched.
work up and down the neck and back muscles from just below the shoulder blades right up to the base of the skull.
Take your time and go gently to start with.
Use your fingers, thumbs or knuckles to work the muscle fibres lengthwise.
You may feel harder lumpy bits in the muscles – they are the scarred patches so concentrate on them.
Spend about 10-15 minutes doing this.
lie on your side, with your head dropped sideways (without a pillow if that’s comfortable enough).
Your top shoulder should be relaxed and dropped in the direction of your hip, with your hand around your buttock to hold it like that.
Your hips and knees should be bent up so you don’t roll around.
This position stretches the upper trapezius muscle running from the shoulder up the neck to the base of the skull,
which is usually the first one to strain and tighten during bent forward work.
massage along the length of this muscle.
Concentrate on the hard patch of scar
tissue usually found between the shoulder and the neck.
You can work more deeply into the muscles once they have warmed up.
Spend about 5-10 minutes working on each side.