Why Do I Have Neck Pain?

Why can’t I turn my neck without pain?

Why is it hard to turn around to look behind me?

How do I relieve my neck pain so I can easily twist and turn?

Learning to turn to look behind yourself is a learned movement skill. It involves all the muscles of the body that allow the hips, abdominals, neck and shoulders to aid in the movement of the head and neck. Owls can turn their heads almost 360º without involving the center of their bodies.

As hunters gatherers we evolved to differentiate the movement of the eyes from the head from the neck and trunk in order to be aware of our surroundings. In today’s modern society we no longer need to be able to do this. We don’t hunt for our food, nor do we need to be on the lookout for predators who would like to have us for dinner. We do, however, spend most of our time facing forward as we stare at computer screens, TVs, iPads or drive in traffic. This creates tight muscles not only in the neck and shoulders, but more importantly in the center of the body. Here’s a perfect example of how modern technology is actively encouraging us to develop Sensory Motor Amnesia, that condition of chronically contracted muscles that can no longer let go, nor function fully:


I decided not to get one of these “backup cameras” in my car so that I would not forget how to turn around to back up my car. While these devices can be handy, it’s best to maintain the quintessential skill of all humans: the ability to twist and turn, like this:


If you don’t turn to look around behind you you will lose that skill altogether.

As Thomas Hanna said, “A stiff neck is a stiff body.” Neck and shoulder pain result more from tight back, waist and abdominal muscles in the center of the body than from an actual problem with the neck itself. The brain and nervous system, the control center of the muscles, has forgotten how to coordinate the natural movement of twisting, which is at the core of smooth walking and running.

Learn how to release tight, painful necks and shoulders with the Essential Somatics® Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD. 


Top 3 Myths about Neck Pain

I’ve worked with a lot of people with neck pain, some so severe that they had to go on disability. In the past  Tiger Woods dropped out of a golf tournament due to neck pain – a bulging disc. He said, “I can deal with the pain, but once it locked up I couldn’t go back or come through…” While adamant that his neck pain had nothing whatsoever to do with his car accident, as I wrote in this post, Tiger has a bad case of Sensory Motor Amnesia.

Here are three myths about neck pain to consider:

Myth #1: Neck pain is all about the neck muscles

Thomas Hanna once said, “a stiff neck is a stiff body.” Muscle tightness in the neck is only a part of a larger IMG_3845muscular pattern of contraction closer to the center of the body. The vertebrae that comprise what we think of as “the neck” are only 7 vertebrae of 24 that comprise the spinal column. There are several layers of strong paravertebral muscles on both sides of the spine that extend from the tailbone all the way up into the base of the skull. If the muscles on the back of the body – from neck to pelvis – are tight, the neck will be affected. This kind of “Green Light Reflex” posture creates pain in the back of the neck and into the base of the skull.

If the front of the body is hunched and slumped, the neck will be affected as well; this “Red Light Reflex” posture draws the head forward, which causes the muscles that move the neck and balance the head to contract strongly to maintain balance.

Simply addressing the neck muscles will not solve the problem – for the long term. The body moves as a system, not a jumble of individual parts. Relaxing the back and front of the body can result in a more relaxed and pain-free neck.

Myth #2: Neck problems come with old age

The older we are, the more opportunities our muscles have had to learn to stay tight, “frozen,” and contracted. This is how Sensory Motor Amnesia develops. It occurs due to accidents, injuries, surgeries, repetitive use, and emotional stress.  If that state of habitually contracted muscles progresses over the years, it will appear that the neck problem is a result of age, when in fact, it is the result of muscular dysfunction left unchecked. There is no substantive evidence to prove that age itself has anything to do with neck problems. There is, however, substantive evidence that a lack of movement can result in tighter muscles and restricted movement. This can happen at any age, especially in today’s technological world.

Myth #3: Neck problems mean the neck muscles are weak and need strengthening

I addressed this issue of painful muscles being “weak muscles,” in an old post about the Top Four Myths About Back Pain. Painful, tight muscles are rarely weak; in fact, they are usually so tight that they can neither release fully, nor move efficiently. Tightly contracted muscles which lack proper blood and oxygen are painful, sore and, because they cannot fully release, feel weak. What is needed is to restore fully muscle function, so the muscles can do the two things they are meant to do: fully contract and fully release. A muscle that cannot fully relax is holding unnecessary tension. Learn to relax and control the neck, back, shoulders, and hips and move the entire body efficiently and your neck pain will probably disappear forever.

Try this easy movement in order to relax and release not only the back muscles, but the neck muscles as well. Notice the connection between the neck and the lower back:

To learn to reverse chronic muscle pain with gentle, easy Somatic Movements for the back, neck, shoulders and hips, click here for my Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders DVD.

How To Relieve Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Neck, Shoulder and Hip Pain

There is always a full body pattern of muscle tension that causes functional muscle pain.

The muscular system and body operates as a whole, not a series of parts. When we move it is never just one muscle that lifts our arm, brings our leg forward or bends our back.  Beneath our conscious awareness there is a perfectly balanced process of sensing and moving between agonist, antagonist and synergist muscles that allows us to coordinate each movement.  If one muscle group contracts, its antagonist lengthens to allow the movement to happen. This is how we move through gravity efficiently and, we hope, with the least possible effort or pain. The brain controls us as a synergistic, constantly recalibrating system, similar to the underlying software of a computer. If the computer is moving slowly and sluggishly, suspect the software; it’s time to update and reboot. So it is with the body.

If, due to overuse, repetitive action or injury and accidents, we change the way that we move,  we can develop the condition of sensory motor amnesia (tight, “frozen” muscles that the brain has forgotten how to release). This means that your brain invariably contracts not just the muscles needed to complete the action, but also other groups of muscles that compensate to help us move. This “dance” between muscles stops working and both agonist and antagonist muscles become tightly contracted, it’s as if we are stuck in a vise.

In my last post I wrote about hip pain and how the posture of leaning and slumping into one’s dominant side to reach for and use the computer mouse, can create hip pain. I often call this “computer-itis.” This action also contributes to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and can also create shoulder and neck pain as one hunches, draws the shoulder forward, collapses through the ribcage and waist and concentrates on the work (and computer screen) at hand.

Try these corrective Somatic Exercises for relief of shoulder pain, hip pain and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Here is a simple protocol for releasing, relaxing and re-training the muscles that become painfully tight from excessive computer work. This is useful for people like me (I’m not a big fan of computers, so I tend to bring a certain level of tension to my computer work), graphic artists, graphics, film or music editors, data input workers and those whose work is simply repetitive.

Arch and flatten – allow the neck to move along with the movement.

Side bend – allow the waist muscles to contract and slowly lengthen.

Side Bend variation. In the video below is a Somatic Exercise that helps to release and relax the muscles involved in Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. TOS causes tingling into the fingers and symptoms similar to angina in some people. The problem lies in the fact that the muscles of the lower neck – specifically the scalenes, and upper chest are tightly contracted. This put pressure on the thoracic outlet, the space between your neck and upper chest where many blood vessels and nerves are found. I have used the Somatic Exercise below to get rid of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in my own body. How did I create it in the first place? See the explanation below…

This is a full body pandiculation of exactly the muscles that “collapse” and tighten when you slump, jut your head forward to look at your computer screen and reach for your mouse:

Washrag – to open up the front of the body and connect the center of the body to the shoulders and hips.

Other wonderful Somatic Exercises that can help to battle “computer-itis” are the steeple twist, flower, neck and neck variations (from Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders).

Martha is available for corporate presentations on pain relief and workplace injury prevention. Save healthcare dollars and prevent worker injuries from repetitive muscle strain and overuse. For more information email Martha.

How Technology Causes Neck Pain

Recently I read this article about one woman’s saga of neck pain. Her struggle to come to reconcile the fact that her iPad is causing her recurring neck pain is a common functional adaptation to our increasingly technological world.

Most of my client sit for up tcradleo 12 hours hunched over a computer. They say that their job is taking a toll on their health and their ability to move freely.

Trying to sit up straight and view my computer screen is killing my body. I feel as if I’m getting “old” before my time.

Their doctors tell them that they have degenerative disks, yet neck pain is merely the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The root cause is the habituation of a well known, yet ignored involuntary stress reflex common to all humans and vertebrate animals: the Startle Reflex (or Red Light Reflex). This reflex is invoked in response to fear, anxiety and worry, the need to protect oneself or repetitive slumping over a computer, smartphone or iPad.

The “posture of senility” and fear is the posture of the computer generation.

Migraines-in-teenagersWhat does the red light reflex look like? It looks like hunched and slumped shoulders, face forward, chest collapsed, tight belly, rounded upper back. This posture used to be consider “old people” posture, yet age has nothing to do with it slumped, hunched shoulders; this is a functional adaptation to one’s technology as well as one’s emotional stress. Habituation of this reflex can lead to headaches, TMJ, neck and shoulder pain, shallow breathing and fatigue. The solution is to restore awareness of one’s posture and movement, and learn to release and relax the muscles involved so you can return to a neutral, pain-free posture.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This young boy looks a lot like teenagers I see walking around, ignoring each other, immersed in their smartphones.  This posture has become the “new normal” for many. Even small children are boy with computerbecoming experts at slumping.

As you read this post, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are sitting like this little boy, mesmerized by the computer screen? Is the back of your neck tight?
  • Is your stomach tight?
  • Are you breathing deeply?
  • How do the tops of your shoulders feel? If you straighten your neck to a comfortable, neutral position can you see your computer screen?

Somatic Exercises can help reverse neck pain and improve breathing.

Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop due to excessive technology use and habituation of a slumped, Red Light Reflex posture. The muscles involved in this reflex (and posture) are always at the ready: to check the phone with the neck tilted forward or crane the neck to see the computer screen. Somatic Exercises and pandiculation help you hit the “re-set” button in your brain (the command center of your muscles) so you can relieve your pain, regain your movement and get your life back.

Here are a few suggestions to help you back from the edge of computer-itis related muscle pain:

Remember – movement is medicine. The brain teaches you to adapt to your environment – for better or for worse. Today’s western industrialized society is more and more sedentary and people take fewer and fewer breaks to stand up, shake their hips, roll their shoulders, stretch out their arms or jump up and down.

Remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay tight and frozen; get up and move! Circle your arms, do the Twist, jump up and down, take some long, deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders. And then go for a walk. Preferably without your phone.

Click here to purchase my easy to understand instructional DVDs.

How Computer Work Causes Shoulder Pain and Hip Pain

Overuse on one side of the body can create muscular imbalance and pain.

The most common muscle pain complaint people contact me about is hip pain – specifically right sided hip pain often accompanied by tightness in the ribs and waist on the same side.  There is invariably accompanying same side shoulder pain, usually on the top of the shoulder and into the neck. To top it off, 100% of those people sit at a computer almost all day. 

Many of these people have also experienced an accident or injury that has caused them to “cringe” and contract in an involuntary brain reflex called the “Trauma reflex.”  The trauma reflex involuntarily contracts one side of the waist and trunk rotators, which results in a slight side bending and twisting of the waist muscles on one side of the body. This occurs due to the need to compensate for an injury or to avoid pain on one side of the body.

Try this: visualize sitting at your computer. Do you lean into your screen to see? Do you reach for your mouse by rounding the shoulder forward and collapsing slightly in your ribcage? As you do this do you sense a twinge of pressure or pain into your hip and up into your shoulder and neck?

Now look in the mirror. Does your posture like either of these photos?:

The photos above show a specific pattern of overuse on the computer. Look at the photo on the left and notice how the shoulder on the right side sits lower than the left shoulder. Look at the wrinkles in the woman’s shirt right under her armpit and shoulder blade. Those wrinkles are caused by tight muscles of the shoulder and waist pulling the shoulder down.

Look at the photo on the right. Notice the same effect, only this time from the front. The shoulder on the left side (the client’s right side) is pulling noticeably downward, causing the ribs to contract. Again, the telltale wrinkles in the shirt just under the armpit let you know that there are muscles tightening unconsciously all the time, while my client is standing “at ease.”

If you are collapsed and contracted in the center of the body, the hip joint will also be tight.

Some studies show that between 70-90% of people are right handed. This means that most people working on computers also “mouse” with their right arm – reaching, holding the right shoulder still and slumping slightly into one hip as they type. No wonder that many computer workers also complain of shoulder pain!

But how does collapsing/slumping on one side of the body create hip pain and shoulder pain?

The graphic on the right will help you understand: this shows the external oblique muscles (the “waist muscles”) that connect your ribs to your pelvis. The internal oblique muscles attach down into iliac crest of the pelvis. Both muscles help to twist the body and flex it laterally. They act like an accordion to bend the body to the side and like a “twist tie” to enable the torso to turn. They are instrumental in moving the hips up and down and stablizing the torso side to side.

If you habitually contract this muscle group, both the origin and the insertion of the muscles will become tight…all the way up into the ribs, shoulders and neck, and down into the hip. The muscles will learn to stay tightly contracted and no longer able to fully contract, nor relax (sensory motor amnesia, ) and pain will develop. The key is to improve awareness of your posture and movement habits (and tendency to slouch to one side while at the computer), then consciously restore the muscles to their original length and function. Your pain will begin to diminish, your balance will improve and your ability to move both of your hips and shoulder equally will return.

If you work at a computer and experience hip pain, shoulder pain or low back pain, you don’t have to live with it. There are specific Somatic Exercises that can help you reverse this problem.

Click here  to purchase my Pain Relief Through Movement DVD or Pain-Free Legs and Hips DVD and learn to reverse your pain on your own. Or contact Martha for an online Skype session or one on one clinical session.

Shoulder Pain Relief Made Easy

Unconscious movement habits can cause muscle pain.

Yesterday I spoke to a woman I’ll call Emily, a well known yoga teacher.  She was confused and frustrated about her shoulder. “I can’t get down to the floor without pain in my left shoulder. I must have an injury, because it hurts all down the left arm.” I asked her to show me what it is that she couldn’t do.  She moved gracefully through the “sun salutation,” and when she got to the part of the movement in which she lowered herself down to the ground, as in the photo at right, I watched as she easily engaged her right shoulder, but “guarded” her left shoulder.

Awareness of the problem is the first step to reversing it.

I asked her to stand up, bring her arms out like a “T.” Her posture showed her left shoulder hunched upward, while the right shoulder was relaxed.  She couldn’t feel the difference and had sensed both shoulders as being the same. I asked her if she had strained her left shoulder at any point and she admitted that she had a bad habit of hunching her left shoulder up (as if cradling a phone in her left ear). I told her that this was an example of Sensory Motor Amnesia  – chronically tight muscles that the brain had “forgotten” how to release, relax and move properly.

Pandiculation relaxes tight muscles safely and effectively: tighten first, lengthen, then relax.

Here’s how she learned to reverse the problem: With her arms at her sides, I told her to slowly, but firmly draw her left shoulder UP to ear, making the top of that shoulder even tighter than it was before. “Notice how the shoulder blade slides up along the back when you pull that shoulder upward. Let that happen.” I said. I coached her to notice – and allow – the shoulder blade to slide along the back as she lowered her shoulder to neutral.

When we don’t notice our movement, we often don’t allow muscles to move. We can improve the function of our muscles purely by noticing our movement. By doing that voluntary movement – tightening the shoulder up to her ear, then slowly relaxing it down to neutral – she regained control of her left shoulder. The pain disappeared! This voluntary contracting, lengthening, then relaxing of the muscle – called pandiculation – is what re-sets the muscle length at the brain level. It is safer than stretching, simple, and reverses pain  rapidly and effectively.

Emily then performed her sun salutation one more time. When she got to the movement that had been bothering her shoulder, she exclaimed, “it doesn’t hurt! I feel balanced again!” What a difference 5 minutes of awareness can make!

Try this easy Somatic Exercise at home for shoulder pain relief:

If your shoulders are bothering you, try this: focusing on one shoulder at a time, as I instructed Emily – slowly draw the shoulder up to your ear, then slowly relax it back to neutral. Repeat this 3 times. Notice the movement. Is it jumpy? Jerky? Shaky? If yes, then go back and do it again until the movement is smooth, even and controlled. Close your eyes and take a minute to sense the difference between the shoulder you just pandiculated and the other shoulder. Now repeat on the other side. If you like, you can finish by drawing both shoulders up to your ears (as if you were protecting yourself from the cold), then relaxing them down slowly to neutral. Again, make sure the movement is smooth and controlled. When it is, you’ve taken back conscious, voluntary control of those muscles.

Click here for Martha’s easy to follow Somatic Exercise DVD for Pain-Free Neck and Shoulders.

Pain-Free At Work – New Essential Somatics DVD To Relieve Workplace Pain

An estimated 186 million work days are lost each year to back pain alone.

Workplace pain is muscle pain that can develop due to the on-going or repetitive demands of your job. You don’t have to sit at a desk, however, to experience “workplace pain.” Teachers, nurses, construction workers, data processors, salesmen and women, lawyers, doctors can all develop chronic muscle pain.

Sitting for long hours at your job can have an adverse affect on one’s health. Office-Somatics-DVD

Stress has another downside: it puts your nervous system into a “fight or flight” mode. Somatic Exerices and frequent breaks to stand, move the arms, walk up and down the hall or simply stand up and “reach to the top shelf” allow the nervous system to relax.

A more relaxed nervous system has been shown to contribute to increased mental focus and creativity. It also directly contributes to improved self-awareness and optimum muscle function. This alone can save you countless visits to the chiropractor, doctor and physical therapist.

Available Now: Essential Somatics’ Pain-Free At Work DVD

One this DVD you will learn seven easy, short Somatic Exercises you can do at your desk in order to remind your muscles that they don’t have to stay tight and frozen in one position all day long.  Consider downloading this DVD to your desktop so you can remind yourself daily how to release and relax you neck, shoulder, back and waist muscles so that they function more efficiently throughout the day.

Click here for a complete selection of the Essential Somatics Somatic Exercise DVDs.