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Exercises for Prevention and Treatment of Neck pain and Headaches

Protect and strengthen your Neck!

Let’s take a moment to think about caring for your neck.

The neck or ‘Cervical Spine’ is a complex, mobile and sometimes sensitive area connecting the Skull and head, to the’ thoracic’ spine and ribcage.

Most of the ‘cervical spine ‘ or neck area has a stack of small vertebra with fibro cartilage vertebral discs in between each vertebra.

However the first two vertebra under the skull have a different structure to specifically allow lots of rotation. They do not have a fibro cartilage disc between them, but a specially shaped narrow joint. This structure allows the head to turn or ROTATE, so the eyes, ears and mouth are positioned for their special functions: seeing, hearing, and EATING!

Sensitive Upper Neck Structure One: Vertebral Arteries

These top 2 spine bones under the skull, have special names: Atlas and Axis.

The upper vertebrae also house the back ‘vertebral arteries’, which take blood up to the brain. There are 4 arteries taking blood to the brain: 2 carotid arteries at the front of the neck and 2 vertebral arteries winding their way up the back of the neck bones, then through a hole at the base of the skull.  These right and left vertebral arteries do a big ‘U TURN’ up where the neck meets the base of the skull.

Taking the head back and to the side on a full neck roll movement or letting the neck drop back too far while looking back and around, can lead to temporary restriction of blood flow to the brain on the side of the artery. This blood vessel can be pinched closed. Dizziness, ‘seeing stars’, pain and sometimes nausea are symptoms to alert you to STOP the back ward neck bend, and allow blood back to that side of the ring of blood supply to the brain and local tissues. A rare but serious side effect of vertebral artery closure is a stroke, caused by temporary lack of blood supply to the brain.

Sensitive Upper Neck Structures Two: Nerves

There are spinal nerves coming out from the spinal cord between each spinal bone the whole way up and down the spine. In the upper neck, these nerves supply the skin and muscles at the back of the head, and also into the face.  Muscle tension, repeated poor posture or excessive uncontrolled extreme neck range movements, like a full neck roll could compress or over stretch these upper cervical nerves and surrounding tissues.

A whip lash type injury to the neck area can lead to some weird symptoms, like headaches, dizziness, nausea and loss of balance.

Some Tips to Prevention of Upper Neck Injury and Pain

Strengthen your Postural and  deep neck muscles

Keep lovely neck posture habits. A ‘poke neck’ posture with rounded shoulders, is not the desired dancer posture. The upper neck gets compressed, which can lead to headaches and weak upper neck muscles.

The best way to find an ideal sitting is to sit up on the sitting bones, and hover your ears and the front of your chest (The sternum) over the middle of your hips. Breath in, Grow Tall! Breath out, Stay tall!

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‘YES’ NOD exercise

The deep muscles at the front and the back of the neck help protect and stabilize the neck bones and tissues.

Here is a nice way to engage and strengthen these muscles, and many find it is the ‘ anti headache’ exercise.

You can either Lie on your back with your head on a pillow or a half deflated soft ball, OR  Sit on the edge of a chair on the middle of the ‘sit bones’ to do this exercise.

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Start by aiming to relax the outer neck muscle tension, and activate the deep neck flexors that can protect the upper neck.

Can you breath, and keep the superficial front neck and shoulder muscles relaxed as you do this exercise?

Grow tall! You can drop the chin and throat down and in toward the neck bones. Feel length between the back base of the skull and the upper neck bones. Nod the ‘skull on the upper neck a few times gently.

Keep looking forward, not flexing the neck forward  or down.  Progress by Holding this Upper neck on skull ‘YES NOD’ for a few counts, then release the chin back to neutral.

There are many progressions to this exercise your exercise instructor can teach you.

Half Head Rolls

Chose NOT to do a full 360 degree head rolls. A safer version is a half ‘180 degree’ head roll, side/ forward/ side and center. The head does not roll backwards at all. Stretch slowly and gently within comfortable non painful limits.

Strengthen the Upper Back and Neck

This exercise is like an Upper back ‘mini cobra’ ( yoga) or prep for ‘swan dive’ Pilates exercise. Lie on your front with Arms positioned comfortably in ‘Diamond’ shape, with the hands supporting the forehead. Press the elbows and hands gently into the floor as you start to lift the head, neck and upper back off the ground. Keep your eye focus low to prevent excessive neck extension back wards. Keep a sense of length out through the crown of the head as you lift. Lower and relax.

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There are many exercises that people can do to strengthen their neck, upper spine, and shoulder girdle muscles.  The Causes of Neck pain and headaches are often multifactorial so your physiotherapist will do a thorough assessment to help you identify the causes of pain.

Please ask your physio to look at your posture and test your neck muscle strength and control. They can help to give you the best pain free exercises.

Start slowly and build appropriate body posture and muscle control to give your neck some SPACE and strength!

Susie Bond

Susie Bond is the founder of Activate Dance Physio. Susie Bond is the practice director of Activate Physiotherapy, Evolution Pilates and MG Pilates.   She has been a physiotherapist for 30 years, a Pilates instructor since 1996 and a dancer since she was 5 years old.

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