Neck and back pain causes 6 million emergency room visits annually. While men are twice as likely to experience lower back pain, women are nearly twice as likely to develop neck pain, according to Donna Kauchak, who holds a master’s of science degree in exercise physiology and teaches through Etc. Exercise Inc.
These harrowing statistics alone are enough for us to pay extra attention to the exercises (and postures) that prevent or help developing neck and back pain.
First, let’s take a look at how one’s lifestyle can affect neck and back pain. Carrying excess weight means a greater load on your spine and muscles, which increases the strain and risk of injury.
Lack of exercise and sedentary habits can also reduce range of motion and strength. Poor posture, an inefficient office chair, a saggy mattress (or one you don’t flip regularly), carrying heavy purses, backpacks and bags, wearing shoes that don’t support your feet — all of these issues can cause pain and imbalances without us even realizing it. Additionally, stress and depression can cause slumping, muscle tightening and alteration of body mechanics.
Posture And Pain
A slouched posture (head forward and rounded shoulders) results in neck compression, as does allowing your head to move, or flex, forward when driving, using a laptop, desktop computer, phone, or doing other habitual activities. This leads to muscle and connective tissue shortening, which can cause pain.
Take a side look at yourself in a mirror. As you study your posture, focus on attaining a neutral position by lining up your earlobes over your shoulder’s AC joint (the bone on top of your shoulder). The more awareness and practice you have of postural alignment, the better you’ll feel.
Stretching and strengthening exercises can also help.
Specific strength and endurance exercises tend to work better than stretching to decrease pain and increase mobility in people who have chronic neck pain — though stretching is important.
Protect your neck when you’re doing crunches by ensuring you’re using your abs, not your neck muscles, to do a crunch. To avoid straining your neck, look straight up at the ceiling during the entire crunch, and allow your hands to support your head.
While double chins aren’t necessarily desirable, they certainly are when you perform chin tucks. Pull your chin in, as if it’s reaching into your throat (don’t look down). Hold for five seconds, and repeat 10 times; do this throughout the day. This stretches the cervical extensors.
Use a Swiss ball to do cervical crunches. Balance with your shoulders resting toward the end of the ball, and extend your head back. Place your fingers at your jaw to support your neck as you bring your head up, to touch your chin toward your chest. Hold the flexed position for three to five seconds and repeat 10 times.
Use isometric exercises by applying resistance, with your hand, to all four sides of your head (each side, then forward and back). Hold for five seconds and repeat five times in each direction, resting 10 to 15 seconds between each muscle contraction. You can also use a small-to-medium sized ball and push into a wall for resistance.
Lay down and stretch your arms over your head. Keep your shoulder blades and lower back flat, against the floor, throughout the exercise. Move your arms down, to a 90-degree angle. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Stretch your trap muscles (the large, triangular muscles extending over the back of the neck and shoulders) by gently pulling your head to the right with your right hand. Perform on the opposite side. Hold for five seconds and repeat several times in each direction, including forward and backward.
To stretch your scalene muscles, a.k.a., the muscles on the side of your neck, hold onto the back of a chair and look up and into the corner (diagonal of the room). This causes your first rib to elevate, and aids proper breathing.
Core strength and strong postural muscles will help prevent, or even alleviate, pain. So, any core muscle exercises you do will assist back health. When performing back exercises, start on the floor and move to a standing position, to train yourself to remain in a proper “neutral” position.
Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet on mat. Find a neutral position by pressing your lower back into the mat. Lift your arms straight up, fingers toward the ceiling, then move them over your head, toward the floor. Progress this exercise with your hands clasped, maintaining neutral position.
In the same position on your back, with hands on your abs, raise one leg, and then the other, maintaining neutral position. Now, raise both legs, keeping your knees bent, to a 90-degree position and hold for about 10 seconds.
Now, turn over to lay on your belly with your arms at your side and tuck your chin back. Lift your chest slightly off the floor. As you get better at this, try it with your arms in a T position, and then with your arms overhead. Perform the full “superman,” by slighting raising your legs and arms simultaneously.
Next, extend your arms out, with your hands on the mat, and press up to extend your back. Avoid engaging the glutes and hamstrings and over-engaging the arms for best results for postural muscles. Repeat 10 to 12 times.
Perform rowing exercises by sitting on a Swiss ball. Connect a stretchy tubing to a stable object, about chest high. Keep your elbows at 90 degrees and contract the muscles as tightly as possible between the shoulder blades. Hold for 8-10 seconds, for 10 repetitions. This also opens the chest and scalenes.
Do a standing shoulder extension by attaching a stretching tube above and in front of you. Keep your arms straight throughout the entire exercise. Bring your arms up, in front of you, and then press back, just a bit beyond your hips.
Now, rest your head, shoulders and upper body on a Swiss ball, then lift your pelvis into a bridge, so you’re making a table top with your body (at 90 degrees). Lower your pelvis, then raise it again.
Then, hold a plank position by placing your feet and lower legs on the ball; don’t drop your hips.
As with any exercise program, especially ones addressing neck and back pain, consult a doctor or physical therapist to keep your body safe and comfortable.