New Year’s Tips for Your Back and Neck
Dr. Melanie Brown
(Republished from the Mountain Times newspaper, Welches, Oregon – original publication date 01/01/2022)
Ever since my teen years painting roads, I notice the stripes as I travel. I never really saw them before. Never thought about how they got there. I didn’t notice whether a retrace was done well or if the bead coat still had its luster.
Similarly, being a chiropractor, I am in a constant state of gait and posture analysis, drastically changing my people-watching habits. I consistently observe a predominance of poor head posture in patients and the general population—specifically, an anterior head carriage. Like roads that need restriping, I see backs and necks that need rehabilitation.
Why is this such a common occurrence?
What is causing this poor posture pandemic? Our neck vertebrae have a lot “stacked” against them:
- A bowling ball-sized head that needs support
- Phone use creating flexed positions for extended periods
- A high incidence of whiplash injuries from sports and auto injuries
What can we do? We can start by looking at our posture. We tend to elevate our shoulders and jut our heads forward, creating a slumped position. When we feel stressed, we wear our shoulders as earrings. Some of us were taught to have a ballet or military posture with the upper back arched backward, which can jam the upper back.
There is a better way to create a neutral stance in the body
- Start with a neutral pelvis.
- Activate your abdominal and low back muscles slightly to hold a good lower body posture.
- Bring your shoulders down like you are carrying heavy grocery bags.
- Then, bring your chin and forehead back evenly, retracting the head.
Picture a string on top of your head pulling up, stretching and elongating the spine, then wiggle a little to relax into that stance.
We can work on our posture when on our phones. A new phrase called “tech neck” describes what is happening to us. A 10-pound head turns into a 50-pounder with a four-inch forward lean, causing the muscles designed to move your body to become stabilizers. This lean creates an imbalance in the neck and upper back muscles. Try to bring your phone up when looking at it to save your neck and try to be on your phone less. Your neck AND your brain will thank you!
Don’t just repair your car after an accident
I was giving a talk to about 50 people, and I asked how many had been in a car accident. Only one had not, and most had been in more than one. Our bodies were not made to withstand the forces unleashed in these auto impacts—and our neck is usually the weakest link. If you were one of the unlucky ones in the demolition derby that was Timberline Road on the 20th, you might be feeling the effects of whiplash.
The neck’s sudden back and forth movement—even at low speeds—can cause neck pain and stiffness, shoulder pain, and headaches. Without proper treatment and exercise, the damaged muscles and ligaments can lead to imbalances that result in a straightening of the cervical lordotic curve that should bring the head back to the top of the body.
Chiropractic adjustments as you heal will help restore your alignment, mobility, and function. In Oregon, your auto insurance pays for your treatments after an injury. Many people do not know that and miss the care they need.
Be sure to be evaluated by a chiropractor after an accident for damage “under the hood.” We often remember to fix our cars and neglect to fix our bodies. If you do not get these injuries appropriately addressed, it can lead to long-term pain, degeneration, and dysfunction.
How sleep and work positions affect the health of your back and neck
Sleep and work positions are important to look at for a healthy back and neck. When sleeping on your back, make sure you have cervical support. I like the memory foam contour pillows, but really anything that fits you well and pushes into the dead space to support the neck curve works—even a rolled-up towel. See what feels good to you.
When side sleeping, your head should be neutral, and your nose should align with your navel. Avoid raising your arm above your head when side sleeping. Instead, keep your arms in front, hugging a pillow (or your sweetie) or in a prayer position.
In addition, check your work ergonomics and use a sit-stand desk with frequent breaks to move and stretch if stationary. If your post-pandemic job situation finds you at home, make sure you aren’t spending the day on the couch with your laptop. You can make a laptop ergonomic with a wireless mouse, keyboard, and thick books to prop up the computer. Eyes should be about even with the top of the screen.
Quick exercises to keep your neck in tip-top shape
Stretching and strengthening the neck feels good and can make a significant difference if done consistently. Avoid bouncing when stretching. Go into the stretch slowly and then hold for 10-20 seconds while breathing.
Starting in a standing or seated position, bring your ear to your shoulder each way, next look to the right over your shoulder and then to the left. You can end with gentle slow neck circles both ways.
Lie on your back with your chin tucked and lift your head slightly from the pillow to strengthen the neck. Hold. Increase holding time as your neck becomes stronger. You feel good when you are more upright, but you also look and feel more confident.
As I people-watch in our mountain community this month, I hope to see some taller, straighter spines.
Happy New Year, everyone!