Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

The Pain in Your Neck

Photo from Erik Dalton, PhD!

Photo from Erik Dalton, PhD!

Everywhere I go, I see people in pain, at least when it comes to their cervical vertebrae.  What am I talking about?  Texting head, turtle head, slumpy posture-there are any number of names for it, but the short form answer is that when your head is forward of your natural spinal carriage, you increase the amount of weight that your upper back, cervical vertebrae, and shoulders are supporting.   (PS. Your cervical vertebrae are your 7 vertebrae below the skull and above your thoracic vertebrae.  Think of them as your neck vertebrae.  They are built for mobility rather than stability in comparison to some of your other vertebrae).

Ok, so the head weighs 10-12 pounds, depending on who you ask, and frankly, how big their head is.  If we take this picture on the right, we see the natural curve of the spine on the far left.  The middle image shows a typical slump, and the increase in weight that the body is supporting is 20 lbs!!!  Then our man on the far right demonstrates the dowager's hump position, which means the upper back is supporting 30 extra pounds in order to accommodate your head.   Yikes!  And yet, many of us play our instruments in a head forward position.  I often see pianists, clarinetists, bassists, cellists, and even violinists in this position, which then reveals why so many of us have neck issues.  

Not only does this hurt the soft tissues of your upper back and neck, but it can create long lasting structural change in your bones, which you definitely don't want.   

Here are some suggestions: 

1.  Have someone take a side profile photo of you while sitting, standing, and playing an instrument.  Be objective and notice what your tendency is.  If you are prone to turtle head, don't try to just jam your head back into place, but slowly start to bring the back of your skull backwards in space, feeling both a backwards pull and an upward lengthening through the crown of the head.

This is a simple fav for the SternoCleido Mastoid (more on that another day) and general neck mobility. 

This is a simple fav for the SternoCleido Mastoid (more on that another day) and general neck mobility. 

2.  Make sure you do some simple neck stretches every day, especially if you are a one sided sleeper (!) or have chronic pain related to your instrument.  (Violinists and violists, I'm talking to you.)  You want to try to avoid excessive popping, snapping, and general "Rice Krispies" sounds in the joints, so move gingerly to stop.

3.  Set a timer while practicing to remind yourself to reset, stretch, and try to find a neutral neck position.  Consider some body awareness practices such as Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique to cultivate that proprioception.

4.  Be aware that pain below the neck due to misalignment, gait, knee pain, hip pain, etc., can absolutely be the primary cause of your neck discomfort.  Don't forget that elevated shoes of any sort can compromise your posture and put you in the head forward position!

5. If you're working with chronic pain, definitely see a medical professional.  You want to get checked up before you have disc pain, rupted discs, etc, and see a PT or restorative movement specialist to get resituated.

6.  Please, please, please do NOT do shoulderstand, plow, or headstand in a yoga class.  You can ask me why, but let's just say that for most people, it's not a great idea.  Be cautious about pilates ab exercises where you don't support your occipital ridge (aka. base of skull) with your hands.

Not just head forward, but whole body slump.  Ouch!

Not just head forward, but whole body slump.  Ouch!

7.  Pay attention to how you sit when you drive, type, etc.  Please also remember not to text and walk.  Not only is it super rude to the people around you (and you might get hit by a car*), it's walking in a slumped head forward position.  ouchies.

8.  Roll it out.  I'm sure you're detecting a theme here, but using small rubber balls along the base of the skull (occipital ridge) feels amazing, especially if you're working with some pain in that area, trying to change your alignment, or just feel tight.