“Help! I used to be able to toss my hair with the best of them.
Now I can barely turn my head to one side, and my neck is killing me.”
Maybe you slept deeply in an odd position. Maybe you’ve been spending too many hours at a laptop on an important project. Or maybe things have just been extra stressful lately. All of these things can cause a ‘neck event.’
So here you are. You’re uncomfortable, not sure what to do about it, irritated, in pain, and work is calling.
Below are the essential steps to getting your neck back to its old self.
But first, let me make a somewhat preachy point. When our bodies cry out about anything, it’s an invitation.
This crying out might look like a lot of things. The flu, neck pain, plantar fasciitis, or IBS.
The invitation is to learn to listen to ourselves and our needs more, to care for ourselves a bit more, to slow down, to make some changes. And I say all that with the understanding and shared experience that life is busy and demanding.
So back to the aching, reluctant neck.
There are some themes running through the tools and tactics that follow.
GENTLENESS – I get it. It can be tempting to want to just force this thing into the background and get on with life. You have stuff to do!
But speeding and pushing through self-care is completely counterproductive. Gentleness will help your nervous system to calm down, which will in turn help your neck.
AWARENESS – keep your attention on – and in – your body as you do things to care for it. Notice things such as quality of pain or discomfort, any sense of heat or cold, any colors associated with your symptoms, or emotions attached to what you feel in your body (irritation, frustration, fear, anxiety).
SLOW DOWN – Keep things easy and slow. No sudden movements. You don’t need to baby yourself, but no pushing hard and fast or letting your frustration dictate your attempts to help yourself.
TRUST YOURSELF – What you think is the most helpful, IS the most helpful. You know yourself and your body best. Listen and respond to it. Pay attention and use the tools and techniques that help you the most.
Tools and Tactics
What might your neck-fixing process look like?
1. BREATHE. just breathe.
Check in with your breathing. See if it’s shallow, or only reaching as deep as your chest.
Focus on breathing slowly, gently, and deeply. No forcing anything. Imagine you’re breathing from your feet up.
No need to make loud sounds, just make it full and conscious. This kind of breathing will calm your nervous system, and relax muscles that are contributing to the problem with your neck.
You can experiment with breathing to a specific count for 3 -5 minutes, using a timer. Both of these exercises are highly relaxing:
TWO HELPFUL BREATHING EXERCISES
#1 – Breathe in for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 7, and then breathe out for a count of 8. Repeat. Keep the count steady throughout and change your pace as needed to make it work for you.
#2 – Breathe in for a count of 4, hold the inbreath for 4, breathe out to a count of 4, hold the outbreath for 4. Repeat. This is called the Box Breath. Keep the count steady throughout and change your pace as needed to make it work for you.
Do these exercises standing, sitting, or lying in a comfortable position. Eyes closed or in a relaxed position with ‘soft gaze.’
2. REMIND YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE NOT BROKEN.
Notice everything that is going right with your body, and remind yourself that millions of systems and trillions of cells are functioning perfectly, even as your neck goes through the grumps. Pain and discomfort is a warning and a strong suggestion from the brain that change of some kind is needed to be safe. Pain does not mean that something ‘slipped’ or ‘bulged’ or ‘tore.’ For more on why our beliefs about our body are incredibly important, read this post here.
3. KEEP MOVING.
Gently move your head in different directions, find the limits of movement. Pay close attention to what you experience, as this will help you with number 5 below. find and remember which movements are most limited or cause you the most discomfort.
- turn your head to right and left.
- tuck your chin, bring each ear towards the shoulder of that same side
- look up and to each side.
- look behind you at your feet on each side.
Don’t strain or push yourself. The brain determines your muscle length and ‘tightness.’ Easy movement will invite your brain to reassess its reasons for locking your neck up to begin with. As time passes, keep up the range of motion, always avoiding sharp pain. Soon, you’ll be able to move more and more easily.
4. PUT HEAT ON IT
A hand towel soaked in hot water, and squeezed dry, is very effective. The moisture helps conduct the heat. Get a few damp, warm towels ready, put them in a covered pot in a very low oven, use as needed. Otherwise, you could use a hot water bottle. Use a heating pad as a last resort. If using electric heat, put the heat on for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Heat should feel wonderful and welcome. As a rule, warmth invites our bodies to relax, to reboot. Think tropical ocean, sauna, lying in the sunshine.
If the heat makes your discomfort worse, try a cold pack, for 10 minutes at a time at most. You can also experiment with alternating hot and cold instead.
5. SMART STRETCHING.
First of all, some basic stretching ground rules. Smart stretching means:
- gentle, never feeling pain or highly intense sensation
- holding each position for 20-30 seconds
- easy movement in and out of stretch
- breathing deeply with the belly
- using the correct position, using support if needed
- and NO BOUNCING.
6. EXPERT, FOCUSED MASSAGE
Get a good massage session as soon as possible. Be clear with the therapist about your goal, and how you want the time to be used.
Ask for the whole session to centered around your neck issue. They may work on related areas away from the neck also, but by explicitly asking for focus on this one issue, you’ll have a better outcome.
Don’t despair if some of the discomfort returns a couple days after your massage and you still can’t move your neck normally.
The massage will have shown you and your brain that you CAN feel better and move better. You just need a bit more time – and possibly another massage or two – before you’re over the hump.
Note: If anything I have suggested makes things feel worse, discontinue it or try again in a little while. If you suspect you have neck pain and discomfort because of something more serious than muscle tension, seek medical care asap.
What are you top ways to help yourself when you find you can’t move your head properly and your neck is cranky as heck?