What should I do when my neck gets stiff?
Ever wake up with a stiff neck because you “slept wrong?”
Stressed out and you carry your stress in your neck?
You turn your head to back out of your driveway and feel that familiar tension or tightness?
We all do at some time or another. It seems like a by-product of being human.
The natural and normal tendency is to stretch the “tight areas.”
Sometimes, stretching and pulling on the tight areas feels good and provides a moment of relief. It seems logical that if an area is tight, making it longer should resolve it. In many cases, however, the relief is only temporary.
The medical literature is pretty extensive in regard to how typical stretching of muscles works. The reality is that muscles don’t get longer by stretching them. In most cases, you gain relief by enhancing your stretch tolerance. In other words, by stretching the muscle and sensing the discomfort associated with stretching, you increase your tolerance to the discomfort, and therefore, gain relief.
I don’t think we really want muscles to respond like rubber bands or leather belts anyway. If we could manipulate our muscle as such, we’d be in a nightmare of an endless search for the perfect length for each muscle. At around 650 muscles total in the human body, we’d never have time for anything other than moving from muscle to muscle in trying to achieve some form of balance. As soon as you got one at the right length, another would seem off.
The question we need to ask is why a muscle would become tight in the first place.
Tightness is actually a way to describe the feeling we get. The muscle can be pulled long because of posture or the position of your body, or it may be that the muscle is trying to shorten itself and when you move or try to stretch it, you get the same tight feeling.
Neck muscles that feel tight are also attached to your head, your shoulders, and your rib cage. Postures, movements, and breathing all influence whether they are under tension and getting pulled long or trying to shorten. Prolonged postures and frequent repetitive movements can affect how you move air in and out of the body, so the way you breathe has a tremendous impact on how hard your neck muscles will work. Given a choice of comfortable movement or breathing to satisfy its desire for air, the brain will always choose to breathe first.
Just about any muscle attached to your pelvis, rib cage, or neck can assist with breathing depending on what you’re doing at the time. However, one of our more common strategies is to increase the use of the neck muscles when assistance from other muscles isn’t possible, thus the common “crick in your neck” feeling or stiffness and limitation when you turn your head (not to mention the potential for headaches that comes with it).
This is one of the reasons we use breathing so much as part of your exercises at IFAST Physical Therapy. If you can normalize your breathing pattern or expand your repertoire of breathing strategies, many times the muscle tension in your neck is relieved and neck motion returns.
Here’s a video that will guide you step-by-step through a simple way to improve your breathing pattern and reduce muscle tension in your neck. If it helps, add a pillow under your head and neck.