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Mysterious neck pain? Your breathing may be the problem

What’s the deal with chronic neck tension?

Do you have chronic neck tightness, for seemingly no reason? It’s easy to see how something like whiplash could cause neck pain, but if you experience chronic neck tension, without an injury, there may be another culprit. Do you have mysterious neck pain? If so, your breathing may be the problem. Read on to learn about why necks get tight out of the blue, and something you can start doing about it!

When someone walks into my office with chronic neck pain, and they’re not sure why, my very first thought is to look at how they breathe.  

What should breathing look like?

When you breathe in, your diaphragm should pull straight down, and your ribs should expand outwards in 360 degrees. This should make the inside of your chest bigger, and draws air inside your lungs, thanks to differences in pressure.

What should breathing not look like?

Problems can arise, however, when stress, lack of movement, mouth breathing, or trauma sets in. All of which causes the spine to extend. Spinal extension is great for certain things, like making you temporarily more stable. But that stability comes at the expense of freedom of movement, especially in your rib cage. Spinal extension also puts your diaphragm in an awkward position, making it hard to pull straight down. So, you’ve got a situation where chronic stress and lack of movement can cause chronic trouble for your diaphragm. This commonly leads to a stiff rib cage that cannot expand 360 degrees.

When the necks act up

You may be wondering what this has to do with the neck. Consider this, if you can’t expand out, your only option is to expand up. If someone can’t expand their ribs out 360 degrees, they inevitably try to pull them upwards. And that’s where the neck comes in. Many of the neck muscles are considered “auxiliary respiratory muscles”. This means that when the main breathing muscles aren’t cutting it, the neck can lend a hand. But when the main muscles aren’t cutting it because the ribs are always stiff, the neck is forced to play an increasing role in breathing.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal? Didn’t you just say the neck is designed to help breathe?”. It’s true, that the neck is designed to help, but breathing should only be a part-time job for your neck. You can think about it like this: imagine getting a flat tire on a cross-country road trip. You’re going to put on the spare tire, to be able to drive to the repair shop, but you probably shouldn’t try to finish your entire road trip on the spare. If you tried, you wouldn’t be able to drive as fast, and it would probably wreak havoc on your alignment. Just like the spare tire, you should strive to use your neck for breathing as little as possible.

What does neck breathing look like?

Symptoms of chronic neck breathing can vary and look different depending on the individual. Posture-wise, it often contributes to either a forward head posture or flattened spinal curves (military or flat back posture).

In terms of symptoms, these patients often have limited neck mobility, and neck muscle tension that never quite goes away. Neck tension commonly shows up on one or both sides of the neck, sometimes the back of the neck, and often the base of the skull. This pattern can directly contribute to things like headaches, ringing in the ear, jaw pain, numbness and tingling in the hands, and even things like thoracic outlet syndrome. Indirectly, neck breathing and associated postures can contribute to things like brain fog, anxiety, and panic attacks.

So how do we fix neck breathing?

When it comes to working on these patterns, we usually need to consider the problem in the context of the entire body. Including the pelvis, ribs, and head. But a great place to begin is by working on your ability to expand your rib cage 360 degrees. Here’s a great place to start retraining your ribs, so your neck can relax!

 Modified Stair Short Seated technique from the Postural Restoration Institute®.   

Why

The purpose of this technique is to put your body in a position where it’s harder to breathe with the neck and to promote rib expansion in 360 degrees (especially the back of the ribs, which tends to be the most restricted area). We are trying to learn to expand the ribs horizontally, rather than pulling them vertically upwards with the neck.  

How to do it:

  1. Begin by sitting on a short bench, or at the edge of a staircase.
  2. Roll back on your hips to where you can feel your sit bones prominently underneath you.
  3. Hug your knees in towards your chest, to close off the front of your body
  4. If you are able, try to push your lower ribs backward (rib retraction)
  5. Hold the position, and fully exhale the air out of your lungs, pausing for several seconds with an empty rib cage
  6. Quietly inhale through your nose, allowing your breath to gently stretch the back of your ribs
  7. Perform for 1 – 2 minutes

How people get it wrong

People often get this wrong by trying to inhale too hard. Most people are eager to feel the stretch and inhale too hard, and end up overusing their neck to draw air in. Avoid this common pitfall by focusing on your exhale and extending the pause. This will set you up better to expand your rib cage. Your neck muscles should be relaxed throughout, if your shoulders start to lift, then you are inhaling too hard. The goal is to get the ribs to learn to fully expand and contract 360 degrees without the neck.

Remember this:

So remember, the ribs should be flexible and able to expand 360 degrees. If they can’t, the neck is sure to take over! Moves like the PRI modified stair short seated technique are a great place to start this process. But the real magic is getting on a program that takes your whole body into account. If you’re interested in starting a holistic therapy program, head over to our scheduling page today, or check the Postural Restoration Institute ® Provider page to find a certified therapist near you!


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