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 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 an all cradletoo common and painful functional adaptation in our increasingly technological world.

Every day I work with people whose jobs require them to sit for up to 12 hours hunched over a computer. Most of them bemoan the toll their job is taking on their health.

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. Neck pain is merely the symptom. The root cause is the habituation of a well known, yet ignored full body 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, or the need to protect oneself. The fear could be real or imagined.

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

What does this reflex look like? The posture commonly presented by those slumped over a computer, iPad or cell phone: hunched and slumped shoulders, face forward, chest collapsed inward, tight belly, rounded upper back. This posture is thought to be the posture of “old people” when in reality it is a functional (and emotional) response to stress – and technology; they look like the young boy in the photo below. The solution to a pain-free neck and improved health and well-being is to regain internal awareness of your movement as well as voluntary control of your muscles – the exact muscles that are currently stuck in the Red Light Reflex.

boy with computerA picture is worth a thousand words and the photo at right says it all. This, unfortunately, has become the “new normal” for many. Even small children are becoming experts at slumping.

As you read this post, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are sitting like this little boy, mesmerized by the computer screen in front of him? 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.

Migraines, eye strain, shallow breathing, thoracic outlet syndrome, TMJ and mid/upper back pain are conditions that can develop as a result of this hunched and contracted posture. These conditions are also examples of Sensory Motor Amnesia, the condition of chronically tight muscles that have learned to stay contracted due to stress and repetitive movement. Somatic Exercises and pandiculation will 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.

If you’re experiencing neck, back, and shoulder pain, 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 the muscles to adapt to one’s 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. Or lie down on your side and roll the top shoulder up, down, forward, back and in circles. Remind it that it doesn’t have to stay frozen in one place.

Click here to purchase my easy to understand instructional DVDs.

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.

How To Relieve Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Computer 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. This action 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 and hip pain from “computer-itis” 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.

Is Computer Work Causing Your Shoulder 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 a “trauma reflex.”  As many readers already know, 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.

Take a moment and visualize sitting at your computer. Do you lean into your screen to see? Reach for your mouse by rounding the shoulder forward and collapsing slightly in your ribcage? If yes, then you can begin to understand where some of this hip pain might be coming from.

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

There’s a definite pattern to overuse on the computer, and the photos above show how specific it is. 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 muscles of the hip joint will also be tight.

Some studies say that between 70-90% of people are right handed, which means that most people working on computers are also “mousing” with their right arm – reaching, focusing muscularly with the right shoulder/arm/fingers, slumping slightly into one hip as they work with their mouse.

How does collapsing/slumping on one side of the body create hip pain?

The graphic on the right will help you understand: this shows the external oblique muscles (I call both sets of obliques the “waist muscles” to simplify things) 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 (the places where they connect on the skeleton) will become tight…all the way up into the ribs and down into the hip. The muscles will become “amnesic” at the level of the brain and nervous system (sensory motor amnesia, the root of most chronic muscle pain) and pain will develop. Learn to improve your awareness of your posture (and tendency to slouch to one side while at the computer), and methodically release the muscles to their original length and your pain will begin to diminish. It’s as simple as that.

If you are one of those people who works at a computer and experiences hip pain and/or same sided low back pain, there is hope. In my next post I will remind you of a few simple Somatic Exercises that will 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.

Do You Really Need an MRI?

Many clients come to me with chronic back pain (or neck, shoulder, hip and knee pain) having already scheduled a visit to their orthopedist for X-rays and MRIs.  When I ask them if they’ve had an accident or injury, most say, “No, I just don’t know what else to do.” Many come after having had both X-rays and MRI’s. Predictably they’ve been told that the “MRI didn’t show anything.”

I’ve recently read several articles about the burgeoning costs of unnecessary diagnostics. One of the most disturbing statements in Overtreatment in Action was:

“According to Bloomberg, companies like WellPoint and Magellan Health Services believe that expensive and unnecessary CT and MRI scans cost them roughly $30 billion a year.”

Another article questioned whether or not the availability of MRI machines can be tied to a rise in unnecessary back surgeries. It says:

There is no clear data to prove that lower back surgery is the best option for patients’ well being, particularly compounded with the risks of hospital-acquired infections or surgical complications.

MRIs, X-rays and CT scans have a place in medical science; they are useful for diagnosing a potential disease or pathology. Yet most cases of tight, painful muscles have little to do with a genuine medical condition, and everything to do with the way in which we physically adapt to the stresses of our lives. Medicine looks for structural problems when the root cause of most muscle pain is functional in nature. Unfortunately current medical school education does not focus on functional movement nor the sensory motor system that moves our muscles and bones. What expensive machines are incapable of diagnosing is exactly that: muscle function and muscle movement.

Sensory Motor Amnesia cannot be measured by an MRI or an X-ray, nor can it be “fixed” with surgery or drugs.

Most chronic muscle pain develops over time due to one’s habitual, muscular responses and adaptations to stress: sudden accidents, injuries, emotional stress, long hours at the computer, or repetitive tasks. The brain (the command center of the muscles) teaches muscles to stay tight and involuntarily contracted.  This state of habitually tight, “frozen” muscles is called Sensory Motor Amnesia(SMA). SMA contributes to back, neck and shoulder, hip, knee, foot pain and inefficient movement. Tight muscles cannot contract and relax properly. Trying to move well with SMA is like trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on.

No wonder so many back surgeries don’t “cure” back pain and, in some cases, even exacerbate it. Most back pain is functional, not structural. Change the way you sense and move your body and your pain will go away.

How do you know if you have Sensory Motor Amnesia?

  • Do you feel as if your movement is not as efficient as it used to be?
  • Think about your lifestyle and history of accidents or repetitive tasks. Do you sit all day? If yes, how do you sit?
  • Have you ever taken a fall or had an accident (car, sports, lifting)  in which you had to compensate until you felt better?
  • Do you drive a lot? If yes, how do you sit in your car?
  • Do you arch your back excessively? Slump forward?
  • Do you stand with equal weight on both feet?
  • Do you hold children on your hip? If yes, for how many years have you done that?

Try this: move slowly and gently – bend, twist, shift from one leg to the other. Notice what you can and cannot do. Maybe you can move easily to the left, but not to the right. This will begin to shed light on your problem.

If you think your problem is due to what you do all day, how you move and how you have learned to compensate with your muscles, your healthcare dollars are better spent  going to a class, workshop or private session of Hanna Somatics than seeking technological answers for a problem that can only be “fixed” by you.

Read what people are saying about HSE. 

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Click here to purchase my book and Pain-Free DVDs.

How Stress Affects Necks, Shoulders and Breathing

The holidays are over, the New Year has begun, and my clients are complaining of neck and shoulder pain.  Most of them work 10 hours a day at the computer, commute, care for their families and get in a workout whenever possible. And most of them don’t realize that they don’t know how to breathe fully enough to positively reduce their stress. Every one of these clients has elements of what we call the “red light reflex” in their posture: rounded and slumped shoulders, a neck that juts out slightly, tight abdominals

I started writing this blog during the holidays, so I’ll give you exactly what I’d written:

At holiday time with all the commitments and obligations people have to family, work and their yearly traditions, there is a tendency to get stuck in this “red light,” stress reflex, even when there is no life-threatening emergency or threat to one’s own survival. For many people just the idea of how much needs to get done as they race through the mall (or click away on the Internet, slumped in their chair, to order their gifts), buy gifts, put up Christmas trees, decorate the house, host family members, or attend parties, is enough to cause them to stop breathing, hunch their shoulders and stiffen their necks – as if danger is right around the corner. Repeat this all day long, and the end result is neck and shoulder pain, or sheer fatigue from shallow breathing and lack of oxygenation to one’s brain.

Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who created the General Adaptation Syndrome, is considered “the father of stress research.”  He was known to have stated that all disease is disease of adaptation – meaning that humans adapt to stress, which alters metabolism and other physiological states in our bodies – and that we have a limited amount of adaptive energy to deal with stress. If ignored a continuously stressed body, constantly in a “fight or flight” stage of high alert, will lose its defenses against illness. This is a very basic overview (and I will write more about it in another blog post about how stress affects joints and mobility).

“Hunched” posture is a response to stress.

The fight or flight state of stress is a primal survival instinct that kicks in when there is real or perceived danger. In Hanna Somatics the physical posture is the “red light reflex” (or startle reflex) of protection and withdrawal:  hunched and rounded shoulders, a neck that juts forward, and tight abdominals that suppress breathing. This posture occurs due to fear, anxiety, danger and on-going emotional stress.

We’re no longer being chased by meat eating predators, but too many of us experience the stress of our lives to be equally as dangerous as that kind of scenario. The real danger nowadays occurs when we habitually respond to non-life threatening events as if they were truly life-threatening.  When the “red light” reflex of stress becomes “the norm” in our bodies, here’s what can happen:

  • we suppress our breathing
  • our brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs
  • our hearts don’t get the oxygen it needs
  • suppressed breathing negatively affects our mood and our creativity (which adversely affects our working environment)
  • we contract the muscles of the front of our bodies, which rounds us forward
  • we lose our equilibrium, causing other muscles to work harder than they should to keep us in balance.

Try this exercise to reduce your stress:

Here’s a wonderful exercise, called “The Flower.”

To buy my book, Move Without Pain, and my pain-relief DVDs, click here.