5 Movement Patterns that can Injure Your Neck
Problems in the cervical spine are things that I take very seriously. In fact, I’ve devoted my career in chiropractic to mastering my understanding of cervical spine mechanics and correction through the NUCCA protocol. The structural and mechanical integrity of the neck are just too important to take lightly. With that said, I received any interesting question from one of my readers.
Recently, a few people at a gym were complaining of neck pain and an inability to turn their heads properly after a series of workouts. She had asked me to write a segment about some tips for making the pain go away on their own. While I’ll go through a couple of tips towards the end of this post, I usually discourage people from working on their own necks. Many people who work on their own necks carelessly will usually cause, or aggravate an injury.
However, I am a huge proponent of understanding common causes of neck injury, especially in the world of fitness. While they are not common, an injury to the neck can put a workout program on hold for months. Most of the time, these injuries begin a Structural Shift in the upper cervical spine. When left uncorrected, it can go down a road of having military neck, early degeneration, and eventually herniated discs with pinched nerves.
The following list features some of the most common movements responsible for neck injury:
1. Kipping Hand Stand Push -Ups – most of my thoughts on this are summed up pretty well here. Don’t get me wrong, competitive athletes might require this skill in order stay with the pack (although some of the best Games athletes are doing most of their reps strict). However, if you’re not looking to compete at a serious level, the continuous impact of dropping your body weight on top of your head, and pushing your head into the ground for a rep will eventually wreak havoc on the cervical spine.
2. Chicken necking Pull ups and Push ups – Are you hyperextending your neck to get your chin over the bar? Your entire spine is meant to be a stable frame that supports muscle movement during exercise. Take a few moments to watch this video by Dr. Kelly Starrett.
The repeated extension of the neck sets your neck up for shearing forces in the cervical discs.
In English, that means disc herniations.
3. Deadlifts with hyperextension of the neck –
While there is some controversy with this particular movement in the weight lifting world, what we know biomechanically is that adding load to a cervical spine in excessive extension puts the neck in a compromising position. Some of the best weight lifters in the world will use it as a tool to prevent the shoulders and thoracic spine from rounding.
Though this may be important for people who are lifting competitively, the truth is that the average weight lifter is undertaking loads that can be handled by a neutral spine and neck position.
4. Neck flexed, Behind the Head Lat Pull Downs
It’s one of the most popular movements that you’ll see inside any normal gym. The idea is that it helps isolate that lat muscles better than pulling in front of your face. While I won’t debate the merits or lack of merit associated with isolated movement patterns, I will say that most people are not doing this effectively.
Trainers are finding that many people are suffering from shoulder impingement syndrome from this exercise. In my experience, I’m seeing lots of Anterior Head Syndrome and lower cervical strains from the lifter jamming the bar into their neck while in a flexed position.
5. Sit-Ups and Crunches with Neck Flexion
Everyone has to have that tight six-pack tummy, and sit-ups and crunches are the usual go to exercises. In my opinion, there are much better core exercises for a tight tummy, but for those of you that love this movement, then at least protect your neck while crunching away.
What you can see pretty often in the gym are a person’s hands behind their head, using their neck as a lever, and throwing themselves forward for each rep. This forward compression can lead to neck strains, and the repeated jarring flexion of the neck can set someone up for disc bulges.
If you choose to put your hands behind your neck, then use your core to pull you trunk up, rather than your arms to push your neck forward. You can even place your hands around your chest, or underneath your chin as an effective cue for this.
That’s All Good Dr. Chung, but I Already Hurt My Neck…..
So what can you do if you’ve already sustained a neck injury?
As I said before, I highly discourage people from treating their own neck if they injured it significantly and should be assessed by a professional.
How do you know if you’ve injured it badly?
1. Level of pain if 6/10 and greater
2. Pain or numbness goes into your arms, hands, or shoulders
3. You feel a locking feeling upon movement
4. You are unable to move your neck because of spasm
If you don’t fall into any of those categories, but your neck feels achy, the truth is that it will probably resolve on it’s own. That being said, any type of gym injury can cause pain to come and go, but if you suspected that the neck has shifted out of place, I would have it evaluated even if the pain goes away. Long standing structural distortions in the spine can lead to more chronic dysfunction months and years down the road.
But if you don’t fit into the above categories, and you’re convinced that you need temporary relief I encourage a safe approach of heat and compression. 20 minutes of a warm compression against your cervical muscles is unlikely to damage structures in your neck, and will likely allow for relaxation of some of the spastic musculature.
Additionally, the following stretches may be done gently to release tightness in the upper trapezius; a well known culprit for cervical tightness and soreness. Remember, do these stretches GENTLY. The worst case scenario of any self-treatment is that you do nothing. The best case scenario is that you get some temporary relief from some tightened muscles.