Neck and Upper Back Pain
3 at-home exercises for prevention
Let me start by saying that I am a big believer in treating the cause of the problem, and not just the symptom. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that there is something wrong, much like the fire alarm in your house tells you that there is a fire. Chasing a fix for pain is like taking the batteries out of your smoke alarm and being blind to the fire that is burning your house down. So, if you are looking for a quick and easy way out of pain, then this article isn’t for you. But if you’re interested in looking deeper and learning how you can make your house fireproof than let’s get to work!
1. TAKE A DEEP BREATH
The role that the ribcage plays in breathing is comparable to the role that your feet play in walking. The primary breathing muscle in your body is your diaphragm. The job of the diaphragm is to elevate and expand the rib cage. The problem is that in about 85% of you, this muscle is completely turned off and forgotten about, likely due to poor posture. The good news is your body has a back-up system in place, called secondary breathing muscles. But not all of the news is good, although these muscles are capable of expanding the rib cage, they certainly are not designed to!
In fact there’s an analogy I love to use to describe this. I drive a Chevy Malibu, is my Malibu CAPABLE of driving through a field? Sure it is. Is it DESIGNED to drive through a field? No it is not. My little Malibu is going to be under a heck of a lot more stress after that off-roading adventure than say a Jeep Wrangler would. That’s because a Wrangler is designed for off-roading. In this analogy your diaphragm is the Jeep Wrangler, and your secondary breathing muscles are my poor little Chevy Malibu.
So, what are these Secondary Breathing Muscles and what the heck do they have to do with neck and upper back pain? Well these muscles consist of upper body muscles such as the pectoralis muscles, the trapezius, levator scapulae, deep neck flexors, to name a few. These muscles don’t sound familiar? They’re all the muscles you’re also straining with your crappy posture! And now you’re asking them to add 23,000 breaths per day to their body of work?! I’m confident that correcting your dysfunctional breathing pattern alone will relieve tension from your upper body muscles, and drastically decrease your pain and improve the quality of your life.
Alright, so I suck at breathing. What do I do next?!
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and a rolled towel under the lower portion of your neck. Put one hand on your chest and another hand on your belly button and take a deep breath in. If your top hand (chest hand) raises first, you failed! (Don’t worry 80% of our new patients fail this too). Check out our video for a walk through for the assessment!
Simple, just try to take a full breath in and out without moving your top hand (chest hand) at all, If done correctly your stomach should protrude towards the ceiling with your inhale, with your top hand (chest hand) not moving at all. Wait, not as easy as it sounds right? That’s because your brain has fortified this damaging motor pathway, and we need to reprogram.
What’s a motor pathway you ask? If somebody was to ask me to write my name with my right hand I can do it no problem, with my eyes closed even! But if they ask me to do it with my left hand I’d really have to concentrate and focus in order for it to be halfway legible. My brain has been fortifying my right hand writing for 25 years, and the left hand hasn’t gotten much love at all! This is an example of a motor pathway, if you don’t use it you lose it!
Moral of the story, even if you failed my test I’m not expecting you to be fully functional breather by tomorrow. This is going to take time and practice. So, practice some functional breathing in this position a few times per day. Heck you might even get some stress relief out of the deal too!
2. RESTORE MOBILITY
Your thoracic spine, best known as your mid back, has the responsibility of being a mobile area when it comes to the kinetic chain. But because we spend so much time in a folded over posture (phones, desks, cars, etc.) we tend to lose that mobility, and very rarely achieve the proper amount of extension through that area of the spine.
The most effective way to restore thoracic spine mobility in my opinion, is with a foam roller. I’m going to let a colleague and former classmate of mine, Dr. Crooks out in Indiana, show you the proper way to use a foam roller to roll out the thoracic spine at home.
If your spine is too sensitive for this type of exercise, or you don’t have a foam roller at home, the Cat-Camel yoga pose works as well.
3. TURN YOUR POSTURE MUSCLES BACK ON
There is a small group of muscles in between our shoulder blades called Rhomboids. These rhomboids are responsible for holding our shoulders back in a neutral position. Unfortunately, when we have long standing forward rolled posture these muscles end up giving up and getting forgotten about by the brain (much like your diaphragm). We have to learn to cue these muscles to remind the brain that they are there.
Find an empty corner in your house where you can stand unobstructed by any furniture. Place your hands at about chest level with your nose pointing directly at the corner and proceed with a push-up in that position. The most important thing here is that you are squeezing your shoulder blades together when you are deepest within your push-up. The best way I can explain it is imagine that you are trying to squeeze a pencil with your shoulder blades.
Alright let me land this plane. For you to have progressed to the point of experiencing chronic neck or upper back pain due to poor posture and dysfunctional breathing patterns means that these types of functional imbalances have been going on for YEARS, long before your began feeling any pain! You probably won’t be able to get too far your first time trying these exercises, you’ll probably feel like you’re failing and be pretty uncomfortable. That’s fine, just make sure you listen to your body and don’t push through pain. That 20+ years of poor posture is a brick wall; these exercises are a chisel. Start hammering!
Yours in Good Health,
Dr. Jesse J. Suess, D.C.
Suess Family Chiropractic, LLC
22 Wyckoff Ave., Suite 1
Waldwick, NJ 07463