A stiff neck is a condition that many will experience at some stage of their life. Stress, poor posture and injury are the most common causes. In the majority of cases the symptoms will ease with a gentle massage or a period of rest. However, for others a stiff neck becomes a daily concern leading to discomfort and inconvenience. If the condition persists it is advisable to get a thorough medical examination because a stiff neck may be the first sign of a serious illness.
If the stiffness is due to muscular tension the first course of action is generally painkillers. These should not be seen as a long-term solution as they will mask the problem and not address the cause. Massage, either self-administered, by a partner or professional, is another option. This does bring some much needed relief for the sufferer but again if the cause is not addressed this will only be temporary.
The most popular treatment is to prescribe neck exercises. The conventional view is muscle weakness or imbalance is the cause. Neck exercises will be given to the sufferer in an attempt to correct the perceived problem.
However, even this approach has its limitations and does not go far enough to address the root causes of a stiff neck. In my experience as teacher of movement and posture the most useful course of action for a long-term sufferer is re-education. If there is a muscle imbalance or weakness, poor habits are usually the culprit. These habits can develop whilst compensating for an injury by holding the neck in the least painful position; long periods of sitting at desks or the common stress response of holding tension in the neck and shoulders. Once a habit is learnt it is difficult for the patient to do anything differently because the habit will feel right.
Exercises may make the condition worse because the patient will do the exercises with their poor habits. The best intentions of the therapist are undone once the patient returns home and performs the exercises unsupervised. Repetition of these exercises performed poorly will only re-enforce the bad habit.
Re-education involves taking the patient back the basics of movement. These movements will initially feel wrong because they are very different from their everyday feelings associated with turning their head or even just holding their neck. The tension has become a habit and they unknowingly hold this tension just to sit. Until the patient can relearn how their body can be naturally poised again all attempts to strengthen or rebalance muscles will complicate their existing habitual movement patterns.
In place of using exercise, a stiff neck sufferer can learn how to move and balance with less tension and condition their muscles by performing everyday tasks without the need to exercise. I have seen this approach work time and time again whilst conventional exercises have failed the individual.
Roy Palmer is a teacher of movement re-education and author of 7 Seconds to Pain Relief, secrets of lasting relief from back, neck & shoulder pain. He has helped back pain
sufferers, sports people and performing artists over the last 12 years. He is also the author of three books on the subject of performance enhancement, injury prevention and rehabilitation for athletes.
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