Is Your Head Weighing You Down?
“I feel like I am carrying a 30 lb weight on my shoulders!” According to research, you probably are!
Neck pain is so common; most of us have experienced it at some point in our lives. With today’s generation of phone users, gamers, ipad users, and computer work, neck pain is becoming more and more prevalent among the younger generation.
When you think of our anatomy, our head is like a bowling ball sitting on top of our very flexible cervical vertebrae that connects to our upper and lower vertebra. A human head typically weighs anywhere between 5 and 11 pounds. Imagine holding a ten-pound weight all day every day – your arm might get a little tired. Now further imagine that with every degree your head tilts forward on your shoulders, it gets heavier.
There a quite a few things that can cause your head to feel heavy and your neck to hurt. A few of the more common factors that can add up to a heavy head are Sprains, strains, poor posture, and other spinal conditions such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease.
Many conditions can cause neck pain: Whiplash and torticollis being two well known conditions that neck pain. Anxiety can also cause a heavy head feeling because of a type headache known as a tension headache that is common in people with anxiety disorders. These headaches are often described as feeling like there’s a tight band wrapped around your head. They’re caused by a tightening of the neck and scalp muscles.
Neck pain and heaviness in your head can be serious and you should see your physician immediately if you experience any of these other symptoms:
a headache that worsens or doesn’t improve with use of OTC drugs
nausea and vomiting if not clearly related to a hangover or flu & recurring episodes of fainting
a sudden, severe headache
an abrupt change in speech, vision, or hearing
shortness of breath
a very stiff neck or muscle pain in the neck that doesn’t resolve in a week
unequal pupil size
abnormal eye movement
loss of consciousness
All of these can be symptoms of a much more serious condition than muscle soreness. According to Kapandji (Physiology of the Joints, Volume III), for every inch your head moves forwards, it gains 10 pounds in weight, as far as the muscles in your upper back and neck are concerned, because they have to work that much harder to keep the head (chin) from dropping onto your chest. This also forces the suboccipital muscles (they raise the chin) to remain in constant contraction, putting pressure on the 3 Suboccipital nerves. This nerve compression may cause headaches at the base of the skull. Pressure on the suboccipital nerves can also mimic sinus (frontal) headaches.
Persistent forward head posture (a.k.a “hyperkyphotic posture”) puts compressive loads upon the upper thoracic vertebra, and is also associated with the development of Upper Thoracic Hump, which can devolve into Dowager Hump when the vertebra develop compression fractures.
Massage Therapy can help with forward head carriage and muscle pain due to weak and lengthened muscles or short and tight muscles. First thing a therapist will want to do is to relax and lengthen the muscles that are involved in pulling the head forward. In order for the neck to move back into a neutral position, the shoulders must be back in a neutral position and not rounded forward, as seen in many people who do computer work. Working the pectoralis muscles to release and lengthen muscle fibers while stretching the muscle allows the shoulders to move back. Similarly, stretching and lengthening the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and scalene muscles allows the head to return to a neutral position. With neck pain due to forward head carriage it is also important to address tight muscle fibers and trigger points in the trapezius and levator scapula, both of which commonly result in neck pain. Splenius capitis and semispinalis capitis may also house trigger points and have no doubt been overstretched, and are most likely in need of attention.
One vital and necessary exercise I will recommend for home care our chin tucks and pec stretches.
Chin tucks don’t look pretty, but they work!
While sitting upright, gently tuck your chin in, making a 'double chin'. Aim to feel a gentle lengthening sensation at the back of your neck. A common mistake I often see is the person starts to move their head up/down. Make sure your eyes and jaw stay level, and move the head horizontally backwards. Think of the movement like a book sliding back into the shelf. Hold for 5 seconds, and repeat 30 times.
Pec stretches feel so good!
For a good pec stretch, which is the large anterior chest wall muscle, place your forearms on the door frame with your elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot through the doorway and the opposite foot behind you. Lean your chest and hips through the doorway until you feel a stretch in your chest. Take a deep breath in to really stretch out your chest, and as you breathe out, lean further through the doorway. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Do 2 repetitions; one with your left foot
forward, and one with your right foot forward. Do 2 to 3 times per day to gain length; once at full length, move to once per day to maintain the length in your pectoral muscles.
If you can’t make it to your next massage therapy session, try some self release.
Digging your fingers into your occipital muscles; those tight knots at the base of your skull, and simply rest your head for a minute or two. Another technique is to use your fingers to massage the tender muscles in your neck and relieve trigger points. Tender points or knots will feel like stiff balls of flesh and require prolonged pressure, so hold the pressure for at least 30 seconds or until they release. Props like tennis and golf balls may also be helpful. Place a tennis ball against the wall and lean into it to release the muscles on the back of your shoulders, close to your neck. Another simple self release technique to open up the chest muscles is to roll a towel or a pool noodle in between your shoulder blades and relax until you feel your chest stretching.
So next time you are at the movies and you hear that message saying “don’t be a tommy texter”, know this is not only to stop annoying your fellow movie goers, but a better reason to save your neck from feeling like a thirty pound bowling ball is weighing it down.