Relieving neck pain is certainly not easy. Ultimately you want to be able to stretch and strengthen your neck, but you want to be able to do this in a way that doesn’t aggravate the often sensitive muscles that you need to hold up and turn your head. And with that big brain of yours, your neck has a lot of work to do! Here are some great ways to get that neck more supple, and able to handle its big job.
1. Stretch the truth. Or rather, the truth is: stretch it! But definitely do it in a way that doesn’t go too far – stretching your neck should not be the same as stretching the rest of your body. Because the muscles in your neck are more slender, plus the fact that you have a lot of nerves and important blood vessels running through there, you run the risk of hurting yourself by over-stretching. The best answer? Use a mirror: look at yourself in a mirror and draw small to medium-sized circles with your chin. This will help move your neck without going too far. Next, draw figure-eights with your chin, still watching yourself in the mirror. Finally, turn perpendicular to the mirror, and turn your head towards the mirror. Make sure that you turn only enough so that you can see your opposite ear, no farther. And most of all, think of it as movement rather than actual stretching – this will help you prevent injury.
2. Keep still. Isometric exercises for your neck tend to be the best way to strengthen the muscles here. These types of exercises involve static positions, where you don’t actually move the joint that your muscle is attached to. Your health care practitioner should be able to show you some good ones. Hint: once again, use a mirror whenever possible, and maintain good posture. Don’t over stimulate doing these exercises as you might be inclined to do. Just because you’re not moving doesn’t mean the muscle isn’t getting worked. It is!
3. Let it soak in. Taking a bath is a great way to give your muscles a chance to relax, and to help relieve some of that tension in your neck. Make sure that you add something to your bath though – the hot water alone will help, but not nearly as much as some additives will. Epsom salts are made of magnesium sulfate, which can help relax your muscles and also release endorphins (those ‘feel good’ chemicals in your brain). Adding an essential oil such as lavender or eucalyptus can also increase the effectiveness of a nice, hot, 20-minute soak.
4. Heat it up. Ice is good within the first 24 hours after inflammation starts, but once that time has passed start adding heat – especially if the pain in your neck is chronic (i.e. more than a few months old). Heating pads, hot water bottles and so on are great. Just be careful not to put anything too hot directly onto your skin: use a towel in between if you need to. Do this for 20 minutes, then let your muscles rest for 20 minutes without heat. Repeat this cycle 3 times.
5. Rub it in. Using some kind of cream or balm for pain relief is often a great option for neck pain relief, especially if you’re on the go. Something like arnica, a homeopathic herb, is great for absolving pain issues. So are other options such capsaicin, as well as some Chinese herbal ointments. Anything with menthol in it should be avoided, however, for pregnant and nursing women, as well as for children and even if you think that you might be allergic or are taking a drug that could possibly have an issue with an adverse interaction.
6. Get it worked on. Massage therapy will help to improve the circulation in your neck, while also helping ease tension and release endorphins. A Registered Massage Therapist (RMT) is trained to know exactly what areas to massage, so be sure to book with someone thus qualified. And if you can’t find the time to book with a professional, ask a friend or loved one – just make sure that they use light pressure and don’t massage the bones in your neck, just the muscles.
7. Put a pin in it. Acupuncture has been relieving neck pain for thousands of years, so there’s a good chance it could probably do something for you too! By getting it performed by an R. TCMP (Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner), you’ll ensure that your diagnosis is based on proper fundamentals, and your treatment will not only relieve your pain, but will have a lasting effect as well. The needles your R. TCMP might use include those on your neck, as well some on your back and lower legs.
By Richard Lobbenberg, Acupuncturist and TCM Practitioner