Cheung: Take time to work out that pain in the neck

Physiotherapist offers advice on how to deal with neck pain.

  • Dec. 21, 2012 9:00 a.m.

Yun Cheung


Many of us suffer from neck pain and endure daily discomfort, aching, tightness, and stiffness.

While stretching, massage, and hands-on treatment from your physiotherapist, chiropractor, massage therapist, craniosacral therapist or other practitioner may provide relief and help to restore range of motion and decrease your pain, strengthening of the muscles in the neck is often overlooked.

If any of you have seen the movie Jerry Maguire, you will remember Ray, the little boy with a penchant for reciting random trivia including the fact that the human head weighs eight pounds.

If that is the case, imagine carrying an eight-pound bowling ball all day long, every day, in your arms. Now imagine doing the same thing, but now the bowling ball is meant to be balanced on the top of your body.

Imagine how much strength and endurance those muscles would have to have in order to hold up the bowling ball when your head is not neatly stacked on top of the spine, for example, when riding your bike, when bending and lifting, and even more commonly, when sitting in a slouched or hunched position.

Not an easy task for your poor neck muscles!

Most of us know that we need to strengthen our heart and lungs for good cardiovascular health and that we need to strengthen the muscles in our arms, chest, and back for daily activities that involve pushing, pulling and lifting. But most of us forget that our neck muscles need to be strong and ready to support us throughout the day.

For most of us, the goal is actually to wake up the smaller, deeper neck muscles that are the “back up singers” to the bigger stronger “mover and shaker” muscles that most of us identify as the ones that become tight and stiff over time, or after an injury.

Finding these deeper stabilizing neck muscles requires focused concentration, and less than maximal effort of contraction to properly activate.

Any more than this low-level contraction, and your larger mobilizing muscles such as your upper trapezius, levator scapulae (your “shrugging muscles”), scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid muscles (strappy muscles on the front of your neck) are eager to take over, causing them to be overworked and resulting in hyperactive, tight muscles.

These bigger muscle groups are designed only to help with movements of the head, with or without resistance; the smaller deeper muscles are designed to sit close to the vertebrae in your spine and help to stabilize and maintain and support your alignment and posture in various positions.

Both groups are meant to work together from the moment you rise in the morning to when you retire for the night.

With the help of a qualified professional, many different neck strengthening exercises can be done that require little to no fancy equipment.

However, there are also advanced neck strengthening machines such as the Hanoun Multi-Cervical Unit (MCU) that can provide your therapist with immediate objective measures such active range of motion (ROM) and amount of resistance used, allowing you to keep track of your progress.

Strengthening your neck muscles is worth the investment in your time and effort. Many of us are motivated to engage in various forms of exercise or physical activity to help us feel stronger, look better, and function better in our daily lives or in a specific activity.

So why not put the time in to help get rid of that nagging pain in your neck?  Because really…who likes a nag?

Yun Cheung is a registered physiotherapist and kinesiologist at Sun City Physiotherapy.  She is a Stott-certified Pilates instructor and a certified strength and conditioning specialist.


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