The Biomechanics of the Neck

The neck is the most vulnerable structure in our bodies. It is composed of only small moving parts supported by a myriad of very small muscles fastening one vertebra to another and the segments of the column to the head and ribcage.  The head itself weighs a good 14 pounds in the average adult with nothing to hold it up but a moving column of bones and the tone and integrated function of the neck and shoulder muscles.

Why the Neck Develops Pain and Restriction

In addition to having very little support to start with, we engage casually in high velocity activities such as driving and take our kids to amusement park rides. Our preferred exercise activities such as snowboarding, surfing, rollerblading, skiing, provide further risk of potential whiplash injuries to the neck. The current fashion of extreme sports takes these risks to the limit.

When we injure our necks we don’t always know it.  Sometimes it takes a couple of years for the effects of a whiplash accident to show up. This is why the current auto insurance environment provides for a year to 2 years for a claim to be open pending the long-range results of even a minor impact injury.   By the time the effects are noticed the habits in the motor coordination system are long established patterns in the cerebellum. Our movement strategy has been permanently altered by the event and we don’t even know it.  All we know is that our neck hurts and doesn’t move as freely in some direction.

What is the Anatomy of a Neck Injury? 

How do we know when we’ve been injured?  How do we define an injury?  Typically our medical approach overlooks any disruption of function that is not sprained or broken or torn and bleeding.  Survival is the measure of importance when remediating problems.  Is this a life threatening issue?   Where is the branch of medicine that deals with dysfunctional coordination strategies?  What injures those strategies?   Any abrupt jolt that involves an overstretch of some tissue while other muscles spasm or contract abruptly to protect the intrinsic structures and the integrity of the spinal column can disrupt the motor coordination information governing normal function.  This disruption can have long-range effects. Once the motor coordination is disrupted we build compensation patterns or coping strategies.  Neighboring muscles begin substituting for what isn’t working.  A coping strategy is a memorized coordination for getting a movement done.  We are now using big muscles to do what the smaller muscles should be doing.  We notice we can’t turn our head without turning the whole ribcage. We feel pain when we tip our head to one side but not the other.

What corrects neck pain?

Is it enough to find all the tight muscles and trigger point them into elasticity? Not really.  Muscles that are tight are that way because they are splinting a missing function.  If you use deep tissue releases to force those muscles to relax you can be left with a lack of support altogether and a vulnerability to further injury.  At best the body is going to have to put back the tension that was just forcefully removed by sustained pressure or fascial stretching.

Is it possible to really correct these dysfunctional coordination patterns once they’ve been disrupted?  The answer is YES. We need a strategy for re-educating the coordination among the muscles.

First, we need to look at all the movement potential built into the neck.

Second we need to determine which movement functions are not enabled.

Third we need a strategy for reprogramming the coordination system.

Fourth we need to know which patterns need to be corrected first.

How to Change Neck Pain

In order to understand neck problems one needs to understand what the normal movement potentials of the neck are.

At each segment of the neck it is able to Flex, Extend, Side bend, Forward Translate, Lateral Translate and Rotate.

Due to its preferred curvature in extension the flexion and extension functions need to be corrected first.  Side bending is always accomplished only when the extension function is enabled.

Because everything is being supported in gravity, the problems at the top are built on the problems at the base.  Even though many clients report symptoms at C2 (‘My neck is out of place’), you can’t change the top before you change the base.  The biggest problems in neck function, those that can send pain and weakness into the arms and hands are rotations and counter rotations at T2, C7, C6 and C5. This results in compression and nerve impingement. Trying to adjust this situation abruptly can make it worse.  Dealing with the upper thoracic rotations first enables the neck to even begin to be able to unpack the problem of rotations.

If the base is locked in flexion, rotation will not be possible. In a normal neck, rotation is enabled with the column in extension. Being locked in flexion is what causes herniation and bulging discs.  Simply relaxing the muscles of the neck will never solve these deep coordination dysfunctions.

In Conclusion…

A good strategy for correcting neck problems requires a detailed understand of the movement functions of the neck and a method for determining priorities in correcting them. More information on strategies for reprogramming the neck begins in Module 3 of NMR.  Find more information on training in NeuroMuscular Reprogramming NMR®  on

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