Updated: Jul 22, 2019
We often refer to the core muscles as those that work around our low back, but what about our neck ? Is there a muscle system that can help us tackle neck pain and headaches ?
The muscle system of the neck.
A simple way to look at the muscle system around the neck is to look at as if there is an inner cylinder of muscles and an outer cylinder.
The inner cylinder are responsible for finer more subtle movements, postural control and help with informing us of where our head and neck is.
The outer cylinder of muscles are responsible for the bigger movements such as rotation, bending looking up and down.
The coordination of these two cylinders allows for our necks to fuction, move and cope with the daily stresses of life.
Often in neck pain and headaches what we find is that one of the issues that is allowing this condition to persist is the function and strength of the inner cylinder of muscles and how it works alongside the outer cylinder.
This can be especially true when an persons symptoms have a postural element to it or in whiplash type presentations.
Think of the core muscles of the neck as two cylinders surrounding the spine.
If you examine the "outer cylinder" of muscles that work on the neck you can see that they attach to the shoulder blades and thoracic spine. Often these muscles get long and weak due to sustained postures such as sitting at a computer all day at work.
Its not just the neck muscles we need to work on .
The superficial group of neck muscle often have anatomical connections to the shoulder blades and thoracic cage. If these muscles aren't fit for the task then the neck is probably being overloaded.
Also if the upper limbs are not strong enough to cope with every day tasks then that can affect the neck as we stress and strain to do repetitive lifting tasks .
How can i tell if the muscles in my neck affect my pain ?
The best way is to get assessed by your physio who has experience in treating necks and rehabilitating them.
Sometimes a clue to the muscles being involved is if your pain changes when you :
Support your neck with your hand and move it.
Support your elbows on an armrest or table and neck movements are easier.
Change in posture changes your pain.
What is the best way to get a fitter stronger neck ?
Every neck is different and poses its own set of issues, so sometimes a one size fits all approach doesn't get you all that you deserve or are capable of.
However some kind of plan is better than none at all and as such there was a great piece of research done in 2006 that showed the benefit of an effective exercise plan for neck pain. Its not the only way to do this but it certainly was very effective and relatively simple.
What did the researchers do ?
The exercises used involved strength exercises for the neck using theraband for resistance and dumbell exercises for upper body and arm strength.
The exercises used for the neck were
resisted side flexion
Here is a video of how to do the exercises with and without the use of theraband.
The research used theraband to provide resistance but you can easily use your hands and work at 60-70% effort and build up to 80% over a couple of sessions.
The strength group did 1 set of each exercise for 15 repetitions.
In the videos below we offer an alternative using the resistance of your own hand, (which takes away the need for the band and an early 80's bandana look !).
The exercises for the upper body used were:
Dumbell bench press or shoulder press.
Bent over rows.
Here's a video showing some of the exercises.
They did 2-3 sets of 8- 15 repetitions. Weight of the dumbells used was 1-2 kg and was increased when the subjects could do 3 sets x 15 reps.
There were also body weight squats involved in the circut of 5 sets x 10 - 20 reps and encouraged to do aerobic activity three days a week e.g walking.
What about hands on / manual therapy ?
At the beginning of the study the participnats had 4 sessions of manual therapy to help reduce their neck pain so the could participate effectively in the study.
What was the result ?
The neck exercises were carried out daily and the upper body exercises were carried out every other day.
Aerobic exercise was done 3 days a week.
Reduced neck pain for 1 year after the study was completed
347 women participated in the trial. Those that did a combination of the strength training and physiotherapy showed a 69% reduction in neck pain symptoms and those that did the endurance based training showed a 61% reduction in neck pain.
However more participants in th estrength traing group were pain free or almost pain free after participating.
The other great finding was that these improvements were maintained at the one year follow up. How good is that ?
I have neck pain, so should i try this exercise program ?
As i stated at the start every neck is different and has its own set of circumstances of why it is going on, it has a personality if you like. Its alway a good idea to get assessed so that exercise programs like this can be altered to suit you or to see if you need a slightly different approach.
What was encouraging from this study was that the combination of local neck exercises, upper limb and lower limb strength and general aerobic fitness combined with manual therapy resulted in long lasting improvements.
If you do try these exercises just follow a couple of simlple rules:
Just go in gentle to begin with , 5-6 out of 10 effort for the first week thenbuild up from there.
There are other exercises are more specific to the deep cylinder of the neck and we will discuss them on another blog in the future.
If it makes you worse stop doing it and get it checked out.
It is worth an assessment to make sure you do them correctly but also to make the program more specific to your needs.
If you or anyone you suffers from neck pain and would like results like these give us a call or book in to see us here:
Ylinen et al 2006 : Effects of neck muscle training in women with chronic neck pain: one year follow up study. Journal of Strength and Conditioning.