Today we’re going to talk about Neck Stability, Pain, and Balance.
One of the things we’re learning more and more about is the fact that for your eyes and inner ear to function correctly, you also need a really strong neck. The neck is super interesting in how it’s shaped and created, both from a muscular and skeletal perspective, and it’s intimately interrelated to the function of the eyes and the inner ear. What got me thinking about this a number of years ago is some research that showed that people that had significant whiplash injuries, or chronic whiplash injuries, often complained of dizziness.
Now this is something that’s been talked about for many, many years, but when you start to really delve into the anatomy and physiology of this, the nerve endings in the neck talk to the vestibular system.The vestibular system is the part of your inner ear, or part of your nervous system that keeps you on balance. One of the things that we find very often is we’re training people that seem to have an inner ear problem.
Very often, if we improve their neck strength and stability, their inner ear problems tend to go away. We also see this in relationship to the eyes, because when your eyes move, your neck is required to, in general, follow where the eyes go or stabilize the head, so that the eyes aren’t bouncing around. There’s a lot of stuff going on all the time between the eyes, the inner ear, and the neck. If you have vision issues, if you have balance issues, often, improving neck stability is a great next step in rehabilitation and also we’ve seen great improvements in performance for people, as well. Now how do you start off working on the neck?
Well, the simple thing is, you need to recognize that there are muscles primarily for movement, and there are muscles primarily for stability. What we want to focus on first are the muscles that are for stability, because these are ones that are often injured, or problematic for people, and you’ll sometimes, if you want to look at this up online. It’s called Deep Neck Flexor Exercises, so let’s feel the difference. If we were working on surface muscles to flex and control our head, we’d be working on one of these muscles probably called the SCM, Sternocleidomastoid.
If you want to feel that, if you turn your head to the left or right, and bend it forward, you’re going to have a big muscle pop out right here. All right. Now this is a movement muscle, not necessarily a stability muscle. We don’t really want to spend a bunch of time trying to stabilize our neck using our SCM, because that can create issues. To think about stabilizing the neck, we want to think much deeper about muscles that lie on the front of the vertebrae, and if you’ve never looked that up in an anatomy book, you can look them up. They’re called the Longus Colli and Longus Capitis. All right. I know that’s great, cool names, doesn’t matter.
What they basically do is they tuck your chin, and once you tuck your chin, they can also help flex your neck while the rest of these muscles that are remaining relaxed. Now that seems super simple, but what we’re going to do is we’re going to go down and we’re going to look at a couple of exercises from the floor that you can do to start to stabilize this area.
There’s a very simple way that you can actually film yourself with your camera on your phone or whatever, to see if your neck flexors are doing their job for stability. I’m going to lay down on the floor and what we’re going to start off with is we’re just going to lay on our back. Being nice and comfortable. Again, if your head is like this because you have some rounding of the spine, use a small towel or pillow underneath your head, so that you can hopefully remain in a relatively neutral position.
All right, because I want you to be relaxed here, so that you can focus on the function of these neck muscles. The basic first test is as you lay here, I want you to close your mouth, and you’re simply going to tuck your chin and try to lift it off the floor. That is what the deep neck flexors do. They first stuck the chin and then lift. Now the sign that you’re having a problem with this particular exercise is that you may tuck your chin, but then as soon as you try and lift up off the floor, you lift up like a chicken. Rather than curling, you are jutting the chin forward and then using the rest of your body to pull yourself up. That’s not what we’re going for.
Exercise number one is simply this.
Get comfortable. Mouth is closed. Tuck the chin and lift. You’re going to hold that for five seconds and then go back down, and you can do that multiple times. Normally, I try and get people to do maybe five sets of five seconds, up to ten sets of five seconds. You may find that you start to fatigue very quickly. If you’re getting a lot of head tension, jaw tension, whatever, then you relax, and you just build up your strength over time. There’s another version of this same exercise. It’s just called the Paper Exercise. Where you tuck the chin and lift only high enough to slide a piece of paper under your head, and then you just try to maintain it without allowing the chin to jut forward. Okay, so that’s exercise number one.
Exercise number two.
Once you can obtain that basic chin tuck position and lift, we now want to start to stabilize side to side, so the next thing that you’ll do is you’ll place one hand on the side of the head. For instance, I will tuck my chin, lift, and now I’ve got to have to hold this position as my hand presses into my head. Now I’m getting a combination challenge, where I’m tucking the chin and also having this pressure from the side, so I would do five seconds times ten reps with my left hand. Then switch to my right hand. Again, five seconds times ten.
By that time, your neck should be getting really, really tired. Most people when I first test them with this are unable to do that much work, so you need to go slowly. You need to make sure that you’re not causing a headache or any kind of neck pain, et cetera. If you need to start off with one second holds, or two second holds, and only do a couple of reps, that’s perfectly fine, but again, we start off with that chin tuck, paper exercise, we then add some lateral tension to it or lateral resistance to it.
The next thing I then like to have people do, because we also want to work on holding flexion while working on the rest of the spine is turn to the stomach. Put our palms down and our forehead here. Now in this exercise, we’re going to tuck the chin and maintain that tuck as we lift up into extension, so it’s pretty simple. Once again, here. Tuck. You want to lengthen the spine as you do it. Maintain that tuck as you come up into this mini-cobra position. Once again, that would be five seconds times ten reps. That is a great starting place. Now the last exercise I’m going to show you, we’re going to stand up. This one’s quite a bit more challenging, because we’re going to put you into a position that can be a little bit scary, so I want you to do this one close to a wall or whatever to make sure that if you get dizzy, or have any issues like that, that you’re safe.
I don’t recommend moving to this one until you have some good reps in and know that you can actually control your neck laying on the ground.
For this particular exercise, all that we’re going to do is we’re going to start with a little chin tuck. We’re going to drop into a full extension standing, so I’m looking up at the ceiling. Now I want to close my mouth, tuck the chin, and roll all the way forward, so I’m basically making sure I’m doing a curving motion as I go from ceiling to floor. People that struggle with the deep neck flexors will do this, so the chin is jutted forward the entire time, rather than curling all the way down, which is really what we’re looking for.
Now once you start to master these, you can put in a lot of isometrics and other things throughout, but what I’m going to remind you is if you have eye issues, if you have balance issues, if you have neck pain, you have headaches, very often, some of those issues can be tracked back to the fact that we have poor stability.
The easiest way to work on these is to go through this little exercise progression. Make sure if you’re not, if you can’t feel what your body is doing, make sure to use your camera phone, or have someone watch you. Because we need to avoid that chicken position. It’s always about flex and hold as we move through the rest of the exercises.
There you have it.
Give this one a shot. If you have any questions, please let us know. Otherwise, good luck.