Have you started feeling the weight of your head on your shoulders? Do you get stiff neck? Do you like your arm under your head while sleeping? Do you wonder if you can do something at your convenience to relax you body? Do you work, play or travel long hours? Are you a sports person wondering why you are injury prone?
Like my previous articles; I will try to stay away from anatomical explanations/scientific lingo and bring my perspective with regard to the problem in a way that can help you understand the problem. Interestingly we are all aware of these issues and there are hundreds of brilliant explanations by top experts everywhere. But do we understand it?
We have a straight structure vertically as you can see from the line of gravity shown in the picture. We often discuss lower back but the curve in the neck is unfortunately never discussed in general. It may be a smaller curve than lower back but it exist and it has implications on the entire upper back region. I can’t emphasise enough the need to re-evaluate training for our back.
Real life scenario – Yes, high time. Come out of books!
- We mostly keep our neck bent forward/flexed while sitting, playing, working, training or driving.
- Our back is mostly compressed.
- Our neck is mostly tilted forward
What are we achieving in the process?
Well, we are trying to reverse the fundamental pattern of our structure at the neck which has implications on the thoracic spine. Considering we have ligaments, arteries, muscles and nerves in the region that we are toying with; it may have more serious implications than just the muscular imbalance.
As per few experts, the forward bending of the neck results in reversing the bend of the main ligament or may affect some important arteries like the Carotid responsible for maintaining CO2 and blood pressure. With every inch of neck bending forward, the weight on the discs increases to double. Now imagine the inches we bend and for how much time….we can relate with the tightness in your neck.
Besides implications like headache, breathing issues, or neck pain, let us look into how our physicality gets challenged with this small little gesture. Lets look at how these beautiful distant looking body parts become evil cousins.
Case study: I had a client with frozen shoulder. She had perfect broad shoulders, a straight neck with good sitting posture. A rarity in my experience. No sign of any serious wrong doing anywhere! What brings ‘frozen shoulder’?
Ans: She would use two hard pillows while sleeping almost making a 45 degree angle with the bed. A possible suspect to the crime?
Learning: Ailments are strictly individual and you can never be sure who gets it first. So take care of it as and when you become aware of it. Don’t wait for others to get it first.
Look at the pictures and visualise the effect if the neck bends a few inches forward from its anatomical position. The muscles of the neck will pull upon the thoracic spine to elongate/lengthen/stretch (posteriorly) from their natural position. Right!?
It doesn’t stop there! There is something we call ‘synergists’ in anatomical terms. This include all the muscles that assist in any given movement. So when we flex/bend forward our neck – tilted position; it is just not the neck muscles which are getting effected, it is the entire upper back region. You can see how neck muscles are interconnected with upper back muscles (or the entire spine for that matter) like a spider net.
Shoulder is an integral part of upper back with multiple functions.
Interestingly, we keep our shoulders slightly forward curved instead of hanging them on the sides – thanks to pillows, chairs, cushions, cars, sports etc. You can visualise how it could keep other muscles stretched in the back and contracted in case of anterior (pectoral) muscles.
Don’t believe me?
Watch your shoulders in the mirror in normal standing position and you will be surprised how our shoulders tend to curve (internally rotated) a bit forward. The curved orientation looks natural now.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with curved shoulders or tilted neck as long as we can recoup and keep them healthy. We are blessed with these leverages and we must enjoy these. But just like a car that needs servicing after a while; our body also needs maintenance.
The connection between the neck & shoulder via thoracic spine & trapezius can be seen in these pictures. Imagine your shoulder flexing, abducting or external rotating the arm and you can visualise the impact it will have on the neck and upper back muscles.
Let us now understand this relationship in sports:
Whether it is tennis, baseball, cricket, badminton, golf, hockey or any other sport in this category; our shoulder group plays a very important role in all these sports. We often forget that its a package – Neck, Spine, Upper back and Shoulder. Package because we now understand how one small movement anywhere in the region can cause distress to the entire region. Further upper back is connected to lower back, lower back to lower extremity…and the relationship/interconnection goes on until our last point of touch with mother earth.
A healthy shoulder group is a requirement and not a choice. People with a well balanced neck & shoulder would usually have a good upper back & spine position.
Let’s see how different individuals use their shoulders, neck and back muscles performing similar actions. Of course, they all bring out the best and are top performers in their respective sport; but it is insightful to see how neck, shoulder and back relationship sworks. There may be slightly different scenarios but it is interesting to see how players move as per the demands of the game.
When I look at these pictures as a fitness expert, I am looking at individuals with slightly different demands for training. It is for this reason why a specific training is most suitable to one and it may not suit another player.
Let us look at two all time great fast bowlers in the world of cricket. Do you think both players should be doing similar exercises for shoulders and back?
They need much more work than a lift.
In addition to different actions a cricketer need ‘spiderman’ like qualities and not hulk’s. And staying with the subject, it is apparently clear now that the first need of training in these scenarios is to ‘straighten out’. You can not strengthen an imbalanced structure and assume your muscles to work effortlessly.
(Swearing on strength training and finding 10 variations for isometrics or eccentrics or lifting heavy via Olympic lifts is all good. But one must assess the requirement of the game and the individual. Do not follow something just because it seems to provides strength.)
Don’t forget – injuries finish careers!!
Conclusion: Shoulder, neck and upper back are interconnected with spine at the center. Anybody who has a healthy neck would inadvertently have a healthy shoulder and upper back in most cases as you can see in above examples.
I leave you with a few very easy exercises to improve the health of your cousins. Always remember that the neck stays with the spine unless it is acted upon independently.
Can you do the above without pain or niggle?