Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

A Relief in the Neck

A Relief in the Neck

Tuesday, October 17, 2006; Washington Post.

Today's topic is a pain in the neck. We mean this literally. (Hey, this is the Moving Crew you're reading. You want metaphors, check out op-ed.)

Neck pain may seem to stem from a single action -- an awkward sit-up, turning your head to see merging traffic, yelling "hi-YA!" while performing martial arts on a mosquito. But for recreational athletes or civilians pursing a fitter life, these injuries usually stem in part from longer-term neglect.

The culprit, says Stephen Rice, director of sports medicine at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J., is sometimes a poor fitness strategy.

"Many, many people focus [their workouts] on the muscles in the front of their bodies," such as those in the chest, shoulders, abs and biceps, Rice says. Developing those "mirror muscles" while ignoring the muscles that support your spine and torso pulls you off your body's preferred balance point on your spine.

Culprit No. 2: bad posture. Does Quasimodo ring a bell, desk jockey? Look at how you sit: shoulders scrunched high, neck craned toward the computer screen, back rounded like, well, the guy who works the bell tower. Hold this posture for, say, 7 1/2 hours a day. Even a good workout regimen and a strong core can do little to neutralize the daily torture.

And so the muscles in and around your neck work harder to keep your head vertical. This continual engagement fatigues the muscles, leaving them vulnerable to strain from even a minor twitch or rotation.

"Your head weighs about the same as a honeydew," Rice observes. "If it" -- the head, not the melon -- "tilts forward, even five degrees, that is a lot of added pressure. Your head won't fall off [insert relieved cheer here], but you will use muscle to hold it up."

In proper standing posture, Rice says, "you could drop a plumb line from your earlobe and it would hit your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle." In such alignment, the craftily designed spinal column will support much of your body weight.

Contrary to what Mom might have told you, a ramrod-straight spine is not the goal: The spinal column naturally curves inward at the neck and again in mid-back to help dissipate shock to the vertebrae during impact.

To protect your neck from injury, isometric exercises help build strength. Do two sets of six to eight reps, twice a week, of the following, placing your hand on your head to provide moderate resistance:

  1. Lower chin to chest (hand on forehead).
  2. Raise chin toward ceiling (hand on back of head).
  3. Ear to each shoulder (hand on side of head).
  4. Turn head to each side (hand on chin).

Also, slow, light stretching through a normal range of motion helps loosen the neck pre-workout. (This is a rare exception to our don't-stretch-a-muscle-that-hasn't-been-warmed-up rule. If anything hurts, stop it immediately.)

You'll also want strong core muscles, front and back. Aside from serving as your powerhouse for running, biking, azalea-planting, etc., your core helps support everything above it, including that melon-like noggin.

To self-treat minor strains, rest until it feels better, then try simple stretches (such as the ear-to-shoulder move, but absent resistance). Again: Keep these slow and painless.

If pain is severe or persists for more than a week, see a doctor. Once healed, regularly stretch your chest and shoulder muscles -- to encourage torso balance -- and work on that posture: shoulders down and slightly back, honeydew approximately vertical, core firm, confident smile. Nice.

You're hired.

No chat this week. Meantime, e-mail: .

-- John Briley

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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