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Sticking your neck out

Ever catch a glimpse of yourself in a shop window as you rush around? Or perhaps you find that by the end of the day in the office your head is almost resting on the desk rather than on your shoulders?

The components of perfect posture have been agreed for many years, along with an acknowledgement that very few individuals actually measure up to the ideal.

Ideal posture is worth aspiring to: it enhances every body shape and size. Even more importantly, anatomy and biomechanics researchers have demonstrated that once upright, whether sitting or standing, ideal posture uses less muscle work. Once upright gravitational forces exert demand on muscles. The further away from perfect or anatomically correct posture, the more effort or strain is incurred by the body’s musculature. The longer an imperfect posture is held or repeated, the more likely it is that muscle strain occurs.

In adulthood, posture is influenced by whatever activity takes up most waking hours. Whether that is sitting at a desk or rushing around, muscles of the neck and shoulders bear the brunt of the day’s activities.

In terms of the head and neck area, anatomically perfect posture has the head resting on the neck so that a line dropped from the earlobes falls just behind the collarbone, so that the neck is held in a gentle C-curve. This position balances the relatively heavy head with least muscular effort on the neck bones. In Fact it has been estimated that the neck muscles make up to 1,600 minor postural adjustments every waking hour to position the head for the ongoing work of seeing and hearing!

Poor neck posture commonly shows up as chin poke or forward head posture. The neck is held forward, giving that ugly ‘rushing around’ look. If maintained over time the superficial muscles at the front and back of the neck become overworked and dominant. The superficial muscles are the ‘movers’ of the neck and are not best equipped for postural work.

Meanwhile muscles which lie deep within the neck behind the windpipe have been shown to play a pivotal role in head-on-neck posture. Known as the deep neck flexor muscles these specific muscles are meant to work at a low level of activity all day long, making all those small movements to balance the head. Frequently strained by longstanding less than ideal posture or by neck pain, they can become inhibited and either unable to switch on or able to stay working for the long periods necessary.

Neck muscle dysfunction is a component of every aching neck. In the case of forward head posture, that posture where your head is held forward of your trunk, the following simple neck exercises are worth doing to relieve neck muscle strain.

First put the neck through the normal full available movement capacity. Start by dropping your chin right onto your chest and then arcing backwards, to bring the face parallel to the ceiling. Next bring one ear to touch the shoulder and then do the same on the other side. Finally, turn your chin as far as possible towards one shoulder and then around to the opposite one. At each extreme of movement you try to move as far as possible and hold this for 3-5 seconds. Unless you feel a stretch on the opposite side of the neck, you have not gone far enough. Repeat these movements three times each and several times daily.

Next rotate your shoulders by circling them back and down. Do 10 circles at least several times a day.

Last, but probably most important to counteract a forward head posture you need to actively turn on and strengthen the deep neck muscles. The way to get them working correctly again is an unusual ‘less is more’ exercise.

Try this. Sitting or standing, place one hand lightly encircling the front of your neck. Gently squeeze the neck region. It should feel soft to the touch. Keeping your hand there, bring your chin forcibly onto your chest. You will feel some superficial muscles at the front of the neck activate under your hand. Relax and bring your head back to an upright position. The superficial muscles will stop working and the neck will become soft again. Next just gently nod your chin half way down. Under your hand the neck muscles should remain relaxed, demonstrating that the superficial muscles have not been activated. Instead this half nod or chin tuck when correctly performed only activates the deep flexor muscles, which is exactly what you need to achieve.

This quite specific technique takes some practice before you will feel confident that you have mastered it. Persevere. Practice it every chance you get until your brain relearns the muscle activation pattern and it becomes automatic. Once you are happy that can do the chin nod without bringing in the superficial muscles you can repeat the nod without needing to put you hand on your neck as guidance. Hold the nod for 6-10 seconds each time so the deep muscles become more toned. Aim to repeat this frequently, especially if sitting at a PC all day.

Two final points. Muscle aching is lessened by heat, so a hot shower or a heated neck pad can help at the end of the day. Carrying heavy bags of wok papers , shopping or a handbag places more strain on tired muscles, so never carry any more than is essential and if possible use a backpack rather than holding bags by your side.
Mairead O’Riordan, MSc, MISCP is a senior Chartered Physiotherapist & CEO of TherapyXperts, an allied health network dedicated to clinical excellence.
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