The cervical spine is the most mobile and often most overloaded part of the spine. It consists of 7 vertebrae: five regular vertebrae, plus the atlas (first) and axis (second), which are shaped specifically to allow the head to turn.
The cervical spine may be thought of as a bridge between the head and the thoracic spine and chest, and can be the source of numerous painful problems.
Origins of Neck Pain
The cervical spine is built to bear the weight of the head and provide mobility while attached to the much less mobile thoracic spine. However, the modern lifestyle often overloads it.
As with other animals, the human body evolved in conditions of constant movement. When walking, the spine is straight, including the cervical segment. Today’s typical living conditions involve much more sitting, which is also often unhealthy and relies on questionable chairs. This leads to hunching of the back and forward tilt of the head, which overloads the cervical vertebrae. Peering down into phone screens is even worse.
Doctors from the České Budějovice Regional Hospital (link in Czech) list these as the leading causes of neck pain:
- poor upper body posture (head and / or shoulders jutting forward)
- unchanging posture or regular overloading of particular areas (common in office work)
- poor seated posture
- chronic stress
- injury (e.g. the whiplash injuries often caused by car accidents)
Neck pain can also be caused by sleeping on the belly, where the head remains turned at a large angle for hours at a time.
How Does Headache or Shoulder Pain Originate from the Cervical Spine?
It’s not at all uncommon for a problem originating in the neck to cause shoulder pain or headache. The various parts of the human body are connected to each other and work in tandem. Not unlike with car suspensions, a problem with one part can quickly spread to connecting parts.
The Zdraweb portal of Masaryk University in Brno (link in Czech) writes:
The biomechanical requirements placed on the dorsal (back) neck muscles by the need to keep the head level are immense. Functionally, the cervical spine is closely related to the shoulder complex, which is why shoulder problems often originate in the neck, and vice versa.
What to do when you have pain in the neck, shoulder, and head? Try one of the cervical spine relief exercises demonstrated below.
If your pain persists, see a physical therapist.
Cervical Spine Exercises: Proper Execution and Consistent Use Are Essential
Most of these exercises involve stretching and relaxing the cervical spine and surrounding muscles. Correct execution is essential for therapeutic effect:
- In all exercises, maintain steady, calm breathing
- In seated exercises, maintain straight posture
- Keep shoulders from riding up
- Keep head vertically aligned with spine – imagine there’s a solid beam in your neck
- Avoid hunching
Exercise for at least 15 minutes every day. Do not abandon your exercise regimen as soon as pain ceases.
MUDr. Magdaléna Hlavačková recommends the following exercises, which you can also do in an office without raising eyebrows.
Cervical Spine Exercise 1: Nod to Shoulder
- Sit straight, do not lean back
- Legs slightly apart, feet on the ground
- Hands resting in your lap
- Turn head right, look at your right shoulder
- Nod head over shoulder 3 times
- Repeat on the left
Cervical Spine Exercise 2: Pulling Shoulder Up
- Sit as in previous exercise
- Elbows at your sides
- Breathe in while pushing elbows down and pulling head up
- Return while breathing out
Cervical Spine Exercise 3: The Drawer
- Cross your hands on your shoulders (left hand fingers on right shoulder and vice versa)
- Push your head straight forward while pulling shoulders back
- Pull head back while pushing shoulders back
You can find more exercises in this document (link in Czech).
Cervical Spine Blockage: Heat Helps
You’ve just woken up and can’t turn your head. Again. What now?
Cervical spine blockages may be caused by any of the following:
- Chilling, including from an air conditioner blowing cold air on your neck
- A sharp, jerky motion of the head
- Some sleeping positions, such as on the belly
- Chronic overload, often from poor seated posture
Tip: Sitting on most office chairs may overload the cervical spine. Switching to a therapeutic chair can relieve the problem.
How to resolve a cervical blockage? These are the easy options:
- Heat. Including a warm towel, gel pack, or heated blanket.
- Exercise. If your pain allows, try slowly doing the stretches described above, but never to the point of pain.
- Leaning the head. Try leaning your head left and right, forward and back, and turning it in circles. Only move your head as far as you can without pain.
Preventing Neck Pain Beats Treating It
Take an inventory of your lifestyle, find the habits and situations that overload your neck, and change them. You may say, hard to do when your job requires you to sit all day. In that case, try these three tips:
- Take breaks. If you can, get up from your desk every 30 to 60 minutes. Stretch or exercise for a bit.
- Sit healthy. Yes, there is such a thing. Get a therapeutic chair, which takes the load off your spine and helps exercise back muscles.
- Work while standing. Try an elevating office desk (link in Czech), which can turn your workplace from sitting to standing and back in a moment.
As a bonus, standing up gets more blood to the brain, which may improve your job performance.
Keep in mind that the human body is an integral system built for motion. Treat it accordingly, and you’ll be safe from neck pain.
- How to Relieve a Stiff Neck – our article with practical advice
- Zdraweb, the Masaryk University health portal, has a list of cervical spine exercises (in Czech)
- Bolest krční páteře a svalové dysbalance (“Neck Pain and Muscle Imbalances“) – article from the FYZIOklinika physical therapy center on the origins of neck pain (in Czech)
- Patient information booklet on cervical spine pain by the staff of České Budějovice Regional Hospital (in Czech)
- Cviky při bolestech krku a šíje (“Exercises for Neck Pain”) – exercise primer by experts from the FYZIOklinika physical therapy center, Prague (in Czech)
- Relief for Acute Cervical Spine Pain – expert video with exercise demonstrations (in Czech)
- A simple exercise guide for cervical spine stretching and relief by MUDr. Magdaléna Hlavačková (in Czech)
- Cervical vertebrae on the English Wikipedia
- Neck pain at the Mayo Clinic
I am a physical therapist with over 10 years of experience, specializing in spine and spinal cord injuries. I am also a Nordic walking instructor accredited by the Czech Ministry of Education, and personal physical therapist to the current Czech champion and Czech indoor record holder in disability shot put.Other articles