Your head houses arguably the most important organ of the body – the brain. In control of every aspect of your movement, awareness, sensation, and consciousness, the brain assimilates and disseminates countless pieces of information every second (though we are consciously aware of a much smaller number). The neck is responsible for both supporting the brain and skull and acting as a conduit through which arteries, veins and nerves send signals, nutrients and waste to and from the brain and the body. Without the head and/or neck functioning optimally, the rest of the body will suffer. This suffering may not be clearly felt – a small headache here, tight shoulders there, etc. – but the accumulations of this less-than-optimal function will, over time, lead to problems.
Do you suspect you might be one of these people? Did you know that there are small, simple things you can do to improve this function?
Before we get to these simple solutions, let’s talk about some anatomy and alignment. We know that we want the neck to act as an effective conduit, and therefore we want the neck to be aligned with the fewest amount of kinks added to its structure. We also know that the head is quite heavy – balanced right on top of the neck it is easy for the bones to support, but when the head shifts off of the vertical axis of the body, the neck and shoulder muscles and soft tissue bear the brunt of this weight. So one of our goals is to work on realigning the head on top of the neck to open the passageway to the body and relieve tension/stress in the neck and shoulders.
Due to our Western, technology-based society, most of us have some anterior, or forward, displacement of the head relative to the neck. In this anterior position, our sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles shorten, effectively pulling us into further misalignment. The SCM muscles attach at the bones behind the earlobes, and then have attachments on the collarbones and sternum, with one muscle on each side of the neck. In the image, you can see the diagonal direction of the muscles fibers, which means that when this muscle is contracted or shortened, it has a tendency to pull the head forward on the neck. The upper cervical extensors (muscles in the upper back of the neck) then become shorter in this position. To help realign the neck, we need to then open/lengthen these upper extensors, along with releasing and lengthening the SCM. Try these short exercises as often as you like. The seated ones are particularly useful during the day if you have a desk job or work at a computer for many hours.
Also, think about joining us next Friday April 10th at 5:30pm for our Movement Happy Hour, and feel free to leave a comment or description of your favorite neck stretch below.
SCM Release: Lie on a bolster with the shoulders propped up off of the ground, but with space underneath the lower ribs. Place a half dome or rolled up towel underneath the head such that it encourages the chin to drop into the neck and the back of the neck to lengthen. Simply stay in this release for as long as you wish, focusing on the chin dropping and the back of the neck lengthening.
Head Ramp: Sitting in a comfortable position, feel the chin drawing back and in as the back of the neck lengthens. Then let the head slide back to your beginning alignment. Be careful that the sternum and ribs do not lift or adjust as the head ramps back.
Head Hang: Begin with a head ramp, feeling the chin drawing in. From this position, slowly drop the chin towards the chest without allowing the chin to slide back out. This will stretch and open those upper cervical extensors.