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Harmeling Physical Therapy & Sports Fitness, Inc.

A Unique Approach to Physical Therapy and Sports Fitness

What a Pain in the Neck!

Originally published in the "Hamilton Wenham Chronicle," September 21, 2006
By Peter Harmeling

Imagine a heavy bowling ball balanced on top of seven little building blocks which form a column under the ball. The building blocks are your neck vertebrae, and the heavy bowling ball is your head. Now tilt the column forward to read a book or backward to look up at the sky. Or turn it to the side to back your car out of the driveway. That ball gets heavy after awhile.

In between the seven vertebrae in your neck are spacers, or discs, which separate these bones. More importantly, there are holes on each side of the vertebrae through which nerves pass. These nerves tell your spinal cord about pressure, cold/heat, texture, etc., and they also relay commands to move your arm muscles.

There are a bunch of muscles, tendons and ligaments that hold the vertebrae and head onto the body and that also create and allow movement of the head and neck. Many of these muscles that work the neck and head attach to the shoulder blade. Also attached to the shoulder blade is the arm. Therefore, when you use your arm you necessarily use your neck muscles.

There are several things that can go wrong with these building blocks which support the very heavy bowling ball.

The muscles of the neck can and do get overworked. For example, when you are working at your desk for long periods, leaning forward in your chair and jutting your head out toward your computer, eventually your neck muscles will get very angry and go on strike. That is, they will go into spasm and start to hurt. These muscles don't know any better; they are just trying to protect themselves from lasting damage.

If you have rounded shoulders, this places the neck and shoulder blade muscles at an even greater disadvantage and makes them even more prone to overwork. If you type at a keyboard all day, especially if you are reaching out and upward for the keyboard or the mouse, the neck and shoulder blade muscles work harder.

Sometimes as you age the discs lose their plumpness and the vertebrae move closer together. Or the discs can protrude out from their normal position. Both of these conditions cause the holes on the side of the vertebrae through which the nerves pass to have a smaller diameter. This increases the likelihood of getting a pinched nerve. If you have burning, numbness, or "pins and needles" extending down your arm, then you probably have something putting pressure on one of these nerves. This causes excruciating pain.

Here are some steps you can take to relieve your neck pain:

Remember, that bowling ball is heavy and those building blocks and muscles are doing the best they can. Do them a favor and take some of these easy steps to alleviate that pain in your neck.

Peter Harmeling is a physical therapist, athletic trainer and exercise physiologist. He owns Harmeling Physical Therapy with offices in Wenham, Danvers and North Reading.