Here's how to fix your stiff neck - and understand the anatomy of a stiff neck and your cervical spine.
Your neck's anatomy is interesting and it’ll help you understand why you may be experiencing pain or stiffness.
Your Neck Anatomy
Your neck is made up of your cervical spine consisting of 7 vertebrae (C1-C7) that start behind your ear and attach to your sternum.
The cervical spine - your neck region - is safest ad most stable with its natural curve. Sometimes, there can be a flattening of the cervical spine due to habitually poor posture - usually a forward leaning head - or injury.
Tip: A great way to remember how many vertebrae are in each area of the spine is to think of meal times (or maybe your grandparent’s meal times). Cervical Spine: 7 (am) vertebrae
Thoracic: 12 (pm) vertebrae
Lumbar 5 (pm) vertebrae (There are also the Sacrum [5 fused bones] and Coccyx [4 fused bones] in the spine, but those regions are far less mobile and thus less susceptible to injury.)
Movement of the Cervical Spine
Your cervical spine is highly mobile with almost 90+ degrees of flexion or looking down including side to side, 70+ degrees of extension or looking up or backbend, and 90+ degrees of rotation.
Cervical Spine Anatomy in Action
Cervical Flexion When you look down (chin to chest), or flexion, the facets in your cervical spine move forward and up. They open up posteriorly (on the back side) and bear less weight than when your head is upright like normal.
Cervical spine flexion would be forward folds or cat position in cat-cow.
Cervical Extension The opposite is true in cervical extension - or looking up like with a backbend. The facets move down and back and are packed closer together.
Here’s the thing: the cervical spine only moves in flexion or extension. No other movements.
So what about neck rotation?
Try this Cerical Spine Test
Take a neutral seat with a natural curve in your neck. Place your thumbs on the side of your neck where it meets your back. Take your pointer fingers and place them under the ears. Gently pressing your fingers in, turn your head slowly to the right. Notice how the fingers on your right hand physically get closer together and at the same time, your left fingers most farther apart. The right side of your neck is actually becoming shorter while the left side is becoming longer. Your neck is extending (backbending) on the short side, and in flexion (forward bending) on the longer side. Our neck is not a ball and socket joint, like our hips. Our neck facets can only move forward and up or down and back. People with stiff necks or neck pain are often told to roll it out - and I've even taught this before. However, neck rolling can sometimes exacerbate neck pain as it's not exactly the movement the cervical spine was designed to do.
In fact, B.K.S. Iyengar (a popular yoga guru), explicitly does not teach neck rolls at all. Does that mean you should stop neck rolling? No. But it is helpful to know if you have chronic neck pain, or if you're a yoga instructor.
I still find a lot of joy and body awareness in neck rolls, but it's good to understand the anatomy and natural movement of our cervical spine.
Solutions for a Stiff Neck
1. Practice Neck Flexion: Slowly and with your breath, dip your chin to your chest. Option to add clasped hands gently behind your neck with heavy elbows to allow your cervical spine to open and release the muscles in the back of your neck. Be gentle, do not force it. Postures: Forward folds, cat cows, ear-to-shoulder pose, seated twists
2. Posture, Posture, Posture - (Bad Posture is HEAVY): Generally for every inch your head shifts forward from its natural vertical plane, extensor muscles must work extra hard to stabilize. Based on the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, for every inch of forward head migration, an extra 10 pounds is “added” to your head’s weight.
So if your normal 12-pound head shifts forward by 3 inches to text or type, your cervical extensor muscles must support 42 pounds. Did you just sit up a little straighter? :)
3. Work complementary muscle groups: Do shoulder release stretches, chest openers, and even hip openers. The body works together. I hope you learned something about your cervical spine today! If you need some empowering or healing movement, you can practice beginner yoga or more intermediate-advanced yoga classes with me anytime.