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A heads-up for neck pain sufferers: Try isometrics

Poor fitness, neglected muscles and bad posture weaken the neck, but a few exercises can help.

December 11, 2006|John Briley | Washington Post

Today's topic is a pain in the neck. Literally.

Neck pain may seem to stem from a single action -- an awkward sit-up, turning your head to see merging traffic or yelling "hi-YA!" while performing martial arts on a mosquito. But for recreational athletes or civilians pursuing a fitter life, these injuries usually stem in part from longer-term neglect.

The culprit, says Dr. Stephen Rice, director of sports medicine at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J., is sometimes a poor fitness strategy.

"Many, many people focus [their workouts] on the muscles in the front of their bodies," such as those in the chest, shoulders, abs and biceps, Rice says. But developing those "mirror muscles" while ignoring the muscles that support the spine and torso pulls the body off its preferred balance point on the spine.

Another culprit is bad posture. Many people sit with their shoulders scrunched high, neck craned toward the computer screen and back rounded -- for, say, 7 1/2 hours a day. Even a good workout regimen and strong core can do little to neutralize the daily torture.

And so the muscles in and around the neck work harder to keep the head vertical. This continual engagement fatigues the muscles, leaving them vulnerable to strain from even a minor twitch or rotation.

"Your head weighs about the same as a honeydew," Rice says. "If it tilts forward, even 5 degrees, that is a lot of added pressure. Your head won't fall off, but you will use muscle to hold it up."

In proper standing posture, Rice says, "you could drop a plumb line from your earlobe and it would hit your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle." In such alignment, the craftily designed spinal column will support much of the body's weight.

Contrary to what many people are told as children, a ramrod-straight spine is not the goal: The spinal column naturally curves inward at the neck and again in mid-back to help dissipate shock to the vertebrae during impact.

To protect the neck from injury, isometric exercises help build strength.

Do two sets of six to eight reps, twice a week, of the following, placing your hand on your head to provide moderate resistance:

* Lower chin to chest (hand on forehead).

* Raise chin toward ceiling (hand on back of head).

* Ear to each shoulder (hand on side of head).

* Turn head to each side (hand on chin).

Also, slow, light stretching through a normal range of motion helps loosen the neck before a workout. (This is a rare exception to the don't-stretch-a-muscle-that-hasn't-been-warmed-up rule. If anything hurts, stop immediately.)

You'll also want strong core muscles, front and back. Aside from serving as your powerhouse for running, biking and azalea-planting, the core helps support everything above it, including that melon-like noggin.

To self-treat minor strains, rest until it feels better, then try simple stretches (such as the ear-to-shoulder move without resistance). Again: Keep movements slow and painless.

If pain is severe or persists for more than a week, see a doctor. Once healed, regularly stretch the chest and shoulder muscles -- to encourage torso balance -- and work on that posture: shoulders down and slightly back, head approximately vertical, core firm.

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