Having a stiff neck, or a painful neck, is pretty common. You get a bad night's sleep, and have troubles turning your head for a few days. Or maybe you sit at a computer a lot have have bad posture. These things can definitely contribute to your neck pain. In addition to those physical issues, there are a few specific underlying emotional patterns that can give you a stiff neck, too.
You've probably had a stiff or painful neck at some point. Has your neck ever hurt so much that it hurts just to turn your head? I painted our bedroom ceiling once and my neck hurt for days from all of the time spent looking overhead. Next time I'll hire someone for the job, for sure!
There are definitely physical things that can cause (and give relief) from neck pain. First we're going to talk about those things. Then, I'm going to get into the underlying emotions and beliefs that can be causing your neck pain, too.
In the 20 years that I worked as a physical therapist, I saw that the people who did the best were those who talked about the emotional issues that were going on in their lives at the time that they were dealing with their physical problems. We talked about the impact the neck pain was having on them and how they felt about it.
It's very important to address not just the physical pain or symptoms that you're having, but also the emotions that you're dealing with surrounding that experience as well.
If you are currently receiving treatment from a doctor, a physical therapist, a chiropractor or other medical professional for your neck pain, then please follow their advice and what they are telling you to do.
How your neck is designed
Before we get to treating your neck pain, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of how your neck is built and what it does for you.
You've got vertebrae, discs, nerves, and muscles as the basic tissues.
- Vertebrae are the bones that provide the basic structure. They house the spinal cord and give it protection.
- Discs sit between the vertebrae and provide space, allow the bones to move, and provide cushioning.
- Nerves are part of the spinal cord, and they extend out from between the vertebrae. They provide your arms with their strength and give you the ability to feel (touch).
- Muscles help to keep your neck supported and, from the input from the nerves, allow you to move your head.
The other important part of the neck is the throat. Obviously, the throat is quite important for eating, swallowing, breathing and talking.
Two important functions of the neck
There are two main functions your neck must perform so that you don't have neck pain. The first is alignment, and the second is flexibility. Alignment and flexibility are actually intertwined. You need proper alignment to have good flexibility.
Why neck alignment is important
If the vertebrae in your neck aren't aligned properly, you can develop problems in all of the tissues of the neck. Poor alignment can put pressure on the discs and nerves, cause the muscles to get tight and weak, and even lead to degeneration (or breakdown) of the vertebrae in the long term.
Some problems that can arise from poor neck alignment include:
- arm pain or weakness (from pressure on the nerves)
- pain in the middle or lower back
- neck stiffness
Why neck flexibility is important
Proper alignment in the neck gives you the most flexibility. That flexibility allows you to turn your head, which means you can see more than you could with a stiff neck. Flexibility also keeps your neck healthy because it means the tissues are healthy and have the space and freedom they need to move freely and do the work they're meant to do.
What is causing your neck pain?
If you're seeing a medical professional for your neck pain, they'll be able to tell you what is causing the problem you're having. For our purposes here today, the particular structure that's at fault isn't important. What IS important is that regardless of the structure at fault, a key to treatment and to feeling better is restoring proper alignment and flexibility.
There is one thing that we can all improve to have a happier neck, and that's our posture. Almost everyone has poor posture, because we spend to much time sitting or being sedentary. We're just not active enough.
We end up slouching, being hunched over and with our heads sticking forward. This position will cause problems over time. If you get tension headaches, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to improve your posture. And I've got an exercise to help you with that!
A key exercise for your neck pain
Regardless of what structure is at fault, and what symptoms you're experiencing, there is one particular exercise that I love. I do this myself every single day.
Hooklying to relieve neck pain
This is a simple exercise that's actually a nice, relaxing position to get in. It's good not just for the neck but for the low back, too.
How to do it:
- Find a nice spot on the floor. You need a firm surface, so it's best on the floor. Your bed is too soft.
- Lie down flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Put your arms straight at your sides, palms up, at a comfortable distance away from your body.
That's it! It's quite simple, but very helpful. Stay in this position for a few minutes and just let yourself relax and breathe.
As you stay here, you'll notice that the space between your low back and the floor gets smaller. You might feel your shoulders fall closer to the floor. You might even feel some shifting in your pelvis. You can also tilt your pelvis back and forth a little and feel how that affects your neck.
Another tip is to lengthen gently up the entire spine - think of your head moving away from your pelvis and toward the wall behind you. Then, take the base of your skull and very gently press it toward the floor.
While you are in this position, pay attention to your breathing. Are you breathing just from your chest, or are you also breathing from your belly?
Poor posture, lots of sitting, and regular stress all affect our breath. We tend to take shallow breaths and only use our chest when we breathe. Taking deep breaths from the belly brings more oxygen into the body, allows your to relax, and is also energizing in a calm sort of way.
While you're in the hooklying position on the ground, practice taking some nice slow, deep breaths, breathing from your belly. When you inhale, your belly is going to rise. And when you exhale, your belly is going to sink back down towards your spine.
Why I love this exercise
My favorite exercise for the neck is one that actually involves creating better alignment in the entire spine. Most people that have poor posture, and it's not something that's just limited to the neck. And usually there is weakness in the abdominal muscles, too. So we end up having our pelvis and our low back out of alignment. And that cascades all the way up. It's not going to get rid of the problems in the neck, if you just focus on the neck, if you also have misalignments that go along further on down the spine.
How this exercise helps to get rid of your neck pain
- It creates good alignment in the neck, which takes pressure off of the tissues that cause the pain
- It creates good alignment along the entire spine, which helps the mid back and low back, too
- It allows your neck to relax and your whole body to release tension
Your vertebrae, once they're in good alignment, then create the space that is necessary for those discs, and for your nerves, so that they have room to breathe, essentially, and to provide you the strength and the function that you need.
By the time you reach the end of your day, you are actually shorter than you are when you first get out of bed in the morning. And that's because the discs are very fluid filled, and they start to lose their height from all the standing and sitting we do all day, which just causes more and more compression.
So regardless of the problem that you're having with your neck, if you can restore more height, more space for those vertebrae, and for the discs and for the nerves, you can have less pain in your neck. You can also reduce headaches and arm numbness and weakness as well.
The emotions creating your neck pain
Now that you have a better understanding of the physical aspect of your neck and how it works, let's talk about the emotional aspect. Pain or other symptoms in every part of our bodies can give us clues to underlying feelings or beliefs that require some attention and healing, too.
If you can get to the underlying feelings or beliefs related to the area where you're having pain, then you have another avenue to help you find healing from the issue that you have going on in your physical body.
Three possible beliefs for your neck pain
Given that one of the important functions of the neck is the flexibility it gives us, it makes sense that pain in the neck is about:
- Being stubborn
If you have neck pain, neck stiffness, or other problems with your neck, it's time to consider where you might be stiff in your thinking as well.
If your neck hurts or is stiff and you can't turn from side to side, that relates to having difficulty accepting opinions, ideas or viewpoints different from those we currently hold.
What opinion or point of view do you not want to see, hear, accept, or perhaps express? All of these things relate to the neck (the throat, expression, our words or the words of others) and turning our head (moving our eyes, for seeing, or our ears, for hearing).
So if you are inflexible, if your neck is really stiff, that means you have a hard time turning from side to side. And I want you to think about this in terms of viewpoints and opinions that other people might be offering or that you maybe need to consider in some area in your life.
If we are walking down a road like the horse with the blinders on, then you're only going to see what is directly in front of you.
If your neck is really stiff, and you can't turn it from side to side, then that means that the underlying emotional or perceptual pattern, if you will, is about only seeing what is directly in front of you, and only seeing one point of view. So having stiffness means that you're not willing to incorporate other opinions or other viewpoints, because you're not willing to turn in that direction to see, to hear, or to listen, to what someone else is saying to you, or what maybe you need to verbalize to other people.
The question then is, in what area of your life are you being inflexible, in terms of listening to another point of view? Where do you need to potentially consider that something else might be true as well, or that it might be good for you to take in another point of view.
Now, we can expand this a little bit further and look at whether your motion is really stiff, going to the left side, or to the right side. There's a difference between the left and the right side of the body. And in most people, the left side is the feminine, which is the receiving side and the right side is the masculine, which is the giving out side.
For example, if you're really stiff turning your head to the left, but not to the right, then that might indicate something about your relationship to the feminine, or your ability to receive something. If you're really stiff to the right, then it might indicate a relationship to the masculine or to a particular man in your life, or your ability to give out, to express a particular point of view.
Another question you can ask is specifically related to how we talk about neck, the neck pain that you might be having. A phrase that you often hear is, "That person is such a pain in the neck!"
In this case, you might want to ask yourself, who is it that I think is being a pain in the neck? Who do I not want to hear? Or what do I not want to hear?
Healing that neck pain
Now, all of these options are not necessarily going to be true for you. So what you need to do is take some time to sit down and ponder these things for yourself.
What I recommend doing is getting out a notebook, taking even just five minutes in your day, quiet time by yourself, and ask yourself these questions and just tune in and listen to the answers that come to you. And what you feel is going to be true for yourself.
So the neck pain is just like any other physical symptoms that you may be having. We have the physical side of it. Take care of the physical needs of your body, and do the hooklying exercise. Then you have the underlying emotional side as well. And so think about what this belief system is that might be playing into your neck pain and see what you can do to resolve those issues in your life.
Treat the physical and emotional side of your neck pain
- See a qualified medical professional if you need to.
- Do the hooklying exercise daily, practice relaxing, and get more activity in your regular routine.
- Start thinking about how you can be more flexible in hearing the views of others.
Where do you need to be more flexible in your beliefs and opinions to have a happy neck?