The cervical spine is extremely important for proper head posture and beyond. In recent decades, chronic overloading of the neck has become common, likely in relation to the continuing rise of sedentary employment. While it’s unreasonable to expect people to change their careers, changing head carriage to eliminate neck pain is much easier.
Functions of the Cervical Spine
You probably know the cervical (neck) segment of the spine supports the head and allows it to move. For this reason, the anatomical structure here is quite different from most of the rest of the spine, with much greater ranges of motion. Unlike for example an owl, a human cannot turn their head 180 degrees on the neck alone, but the design of this part of our spine is still quite impressive.
Such a range of motion however requires quite a lot of muscle support, the lack of which is the most common “pain point”, so to speak, in neck pain patients.
The cervical spine also protects the veins that supply the rear portion of the brain. If these become pinched, it may cause poor eyesight that won’t be helped by glasses, but may be helped by a good chair and the proper exercise. The cervical spine also protects the nerves that separate from the spinal cord in this region, innervating mainly the shoulders and arms. A problem here can cause a variety of painful symptoms, which may extend all the way to the fingers.
Problems arising from the cervical spine may also manifest as migraine or other headache, pain in the forehead or behind the eyes, tinnitus, vertigo, and other such symptoms. Often, involvement of the spine is not suspected as the cause, leading to inappropriate treatment and probably lack of relief.
Mechanically, the spine functions as a fairly efficient shock absorber, a function in which it is aided by the foot arch and the knee. Shock damping is the reason for the kyphoses and lordoses (the S-shape of the spine). Aside from the bent shape, the rigid vertebrae are connected by flexible spinal discs, which are made of a kind of gelatin surrounded by cartilage. Overloading the discs can cause them to wear out prematurely or herniate.
In general, the part of the body that is least tolerant to mechanical shocks is the brain, found at the top of the “sprung” spinal column. A hard enough shock can cause concussion, a serious state, but even much milder vibrations aren’t exactly appreciated. Some people get sick from jumping on a trampoline, and walking on hard surfaces like roads tends to be less relaxing than walking on soft forest soil.
Causes of Neck Pain
Neck pain is usually caused by one or more of the following:
poor posture (see below)
chronic forward tilt of the head (such as from working at computers)
unsuitable chair, long-term use of asymmetrical seated pose (e.g. legs crossed)
poor breathing technique (breathing “high” in chest, where shoulders rise during deep breaths)
unsuitable or chaotic exercise (random stretches rarely solve anything, and in some cases may make it worse)
unsuitable pillow (extremely common)
mental tension (stress)
Mechanical causes of neck pain
A long-term sedentary lifestyle can literally put the cervical spine in a pinch. On the one hand, the thoracic spine below tends to become hunched, pushing the bottom of the cervical section into a permanent forward tilt. Meanwhile from above, the head generally stays perpendicular to the gravitational vector (so, horizontal, unless you’re an astronaut), pushing the top of the cervical spine backward. Together, this leads to unsustainably sharp angles between the cervical vertebrae, causing pain.
Note: If you’re suffering from chronic neck pain, it may be worthwhile to have the mobility of your thoracic spine checked as well. Exercising the neck alone rarely solves the problem.
If your neck gets stiff well before your shift ends and you can hit the gym, relieve it with this simple seated motion. The video shows the proper technique for leaning forward and sideways and rotation to relieve neck pain.
EXERCISE 2: Cervical Spine Relaxation – Cat on a Chair
The “Cat on a Chair” pose can be used to relax your back while sitting down. The straightening and stretching portions of the motion should also include the chest, which is important for neck relief. Watch the video for a demonstration.
Note: The actual cat is not an essential part of this exercise. :)
Does your back feel like it has a twisted I-beam instead of a spine in it? It’s best to relax the entire length of the spine for maximum effect. One way to do this is a slow, controlled rotation towards a leading arm, done while kneeling. See the video for a demonstration.
How to Prevent Neck Pain?
Non-traumatic pain (i.e., pain not related to injury) anywhere in the body is usually the result of multiple modes of overloading, which together exceed the body’s capacity to compensate. Fixes for the most common overload sources include:
Bedroom equipment. Specifically, get a high-quality mattress and pillow.
Ergonomics of common physical activity. Improving or adjusting the “technique” for even something as mundane as teeth brushing or hair drying can help reduce neck pain. (By the way, some people are sensitive to a cold head, such as you may get from walking around with wet long hair. It’s unlikely to happen on a sunny beach, but it doesn’t have to be particularly cold either.)
Sitting. This is a very common source of all sorts of spinal problems. It doesn’t matter much what you sit on if you only sit occasionally and otherwise lead a physically active life. But if you spend a lot of time sitting every day (for work or leisure, doesn’t matter), you should make sure you’re sitting on the best hardware you can get. (We assume this is the reason you’ve come to this website in the first place.)
Drink plenty of fluids. It may sound silly, but don’t underestimate dehydration, particularly in hot weather.
Stress management. Learning to manage stress helps a great deal for a variety of reasons, including decreased strain on many of the body’s muscles.
Proper breathing. Helps physically, and can also be used actively for the aforementioned stress management.
Avoid the chill. An air-conditioned office or car may sound nice, but if you’re not careful, it can be the cold version of hell for body parts like the neck and shoulders.
We’ve reviewed some recommendations for dealing with neck pain. If the lower back is your problem area instead, we can help with that, too. See our article on the top 3 exercises for lower back pain.
I am a licensed physical therapist with more than 16 years in the field. I specialize in disorders of musculoskeletal function, traumatology, and orthopaedics. I am certified in Professor Kolář's Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization technique, as a therapeutic physical education instructor by the Czech Ministry of Education, and as a tutor for AKRIS (the accredited educational programs of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs).