There are some things you just take for granted, until you no longer have them. Like being able to turn your head and look over your shoulder before you back your car into that concrete pillar that someone clearly installed while you ran into Target to stock up on toilet paper.
Having a stiff neck really throws a wrench in your day. You don’t realize how much you turn your head until it hurts every time you try.
But a hundred neck massages won’t fix the problem, which is why your stiff neck keeps coming back. Because the pain in your neck? Has nothing to do with your neck.
Rarely is the site of the symptom the site of the problem. To get to the root of your neck issues, you have to chase the problem, not the pain.
Let’s back up a bit and take a look at where the neck actually begins and ends. Anatomically speaking, your neck extends from the first cervical vertebra just beneath your skull to the 7th cervical vertebra. But when you turn your head, these aren’t the only moving parts.
Your cervical spine connects very directly to your thoracic spine (mid-back), which in turn links to your lumbar spine in your lower back. Your lumbar spine is hooked up to your sacrum – the large triangular shaped bone that wedges into your pelvis.
Drawing lines between different body parts is as artificial as our political borders. They don’t exist, except as constructs of our minds.
If you keep stretching your neck and the pain keeps returning, it’s because something else is out of balance and it’s contributing to the tightness further up the chain.
My advice? Look at your hips. In our modern culture, all of us – ALL of us – sit way more than we should. We sit to work, sit to drive, sit to eat, even sit to relax. Some of us even sit to exercise!
Sitting puts our hips into flexion, bringing the knees closer to the chest and contracting the front line of the body. This isn’t a problem for short durations, but getting stuck in flexion, as so many modern people are, causes dysfunctional spinal movement and, ultimately, neck and shoulder pain.
Now it’s all starting to come together, right? The body is a system where each piece and part is dependent on every other piece for function and balance. So, how can you address the restrictions in your hips?
Hips are complicated. There are myriad muscles crossing over joints and attaching at different points, some deep inside the pelvis. But the most important thing you can do to restore proper hip function is to treat your flexion addiction.
Hip flexors are the muscles that – you guessed it – flex the hip. The largest of these are the quadriceps, four large muscles that make up the front of your thigh.
A much deeper and also much more difficult to stretch hip flexor is your psoas, which runs from the front of your spine just behind your solar plexus down to the inside of your leg. This guy is deep, in more ways that one.
The psoas tends to store a lot of negative emotion, namely fear and anxiety. When you feel threatened in any way, the tendency is to “go fetal,” or fold yourself up into your belly to protect your sensitive organs.
Even if you don’t get fully into the fetal position, chronic stress and insecurity can create a shortening of the psoas in an approximation of the fetal position.
The psoas is also deeply linked with breathing because the place where it connects to your spine is just below your diaphragm. So, a tight, restricted psoas will keep your breath shallow, which in turn raises stress levels and increases overall physical tension.
Opening up the front of the hips gives length to your spine, takes pressure off of your neck, allows you to breathe more deeply and ultimately reduces overall tension in your body. That’s a lot of bang for your stretching buck!
Try this simple dynamic hip flexor stretch to release your quads and psoas, and then leave me a comment and let me know how it goes for you!
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Rob Genis says
Thanks for the article but I have a question. You mentioned sitting a lot. I do all day at work. My tailbone has been bothering me for about 6 months now. Can you suggest any stretches/excercises to help? Thanks.
Stretching for 2 minutes – even three or five times a day – won’t negate eight to twelve hours of an activity that’s hurting your body. Likely, you need to change your sitting position, rocking forward off your tailbone and onto your sitting bones, giving your spine back its lumbar curve (I’m assuming, since I can’t see you, and this is a common problem for desk jockeys). Once you’ve corrected your sitting posture, you can do some stretches like this one to take the strain off your tailbone. The two combined should give you relief.