One of the worst mornings I ever had was at the end of my first year in grad school. I spent the weekend studying back home and woke up the morning of my orthopedic practical with a stiff neck. Ridiculously painful and couldn’t turn left, not something that helped my ride down the Taconic. The two flat tires is a different story altogether, despite my mom thinking I destroyed her car on purpose. In any case, we’ve all been there…the dreaded stiff neck that is the bane of your existence for 24-48 hours and whose remnants linger for up to a couple of weeks. It seems like there’s no quick fix, and to be honest, there isn’t. But one of the best things you can do for it is a bit counterintuitive. Instead of stretching it, do the opposite…get the muscles contracting and shortening.
The concept of “shortening” muscles or activating them is not the first thing people tend to think of when they’re injured. It’s been a long tradition of “just stretch it” and then when that doesn’t work, “just stretch it some more.” And then eventually, pain can and does subside with time, and so we associate stretching with “fixing” the issues. If you’ve followed us or spoken with us for any length of time, you know we rarely if ever promote stretching for the sake of stretching. Even less so when it comes to an injury. This is also true for a stiff neck.
When you have a “stiff neck” a muscle or group of muscles is under a period of increased tone or tension. This tone actually makes the muscle more resistant to lengthening which is one of the reasons movement is painful and restricted, usually in one direction more than another. Think of yourself when you’ve ever been sick, or stressed out, or irritable, and just plain flat out DONE with the world (for the time being). Do you ever feel like doing “more” in those situations? Do you feel like being more active, or interacting with people, or doing strenuous tasks? Probably not. When you’re irritable, you don’t want someone yanking your arm and saying “c’mon just move, just come with me, just do it.” That’s the last thing you want and you’ll probably get more irritated and resist. That’s the best analogy I’ve come up with to explain what’s happening with your muscles when you have a “stiff neck.” So by that same measure, you don’t want to just yank on the muscle and force it to lengthen, you’ll almost surely prolong the process.
So what “should” we do? Well, I don’t want to paint all neck pain with a broad brush, but with many ‘stiff necks” we find pain subsides and motion returns with gentle shortening of the muscle groups to the restricted side, and with gentle activation of those muscles with isometric movements, rather than aggressive neck motions. It usually hurts to bend forward, so we suggest gently bending your neck backward into extension (this is usually a restricted motion for us anyway). If it hurts to use muscles in one direction, then slowly shorten those muscles by using your hand as resistance and trying to move your neck that way. We’re talking about a 1-2/10 effort slowly building up to more and more tolerable efforts. Usually, we find that the first few repetitions seem uncomfortable still, but that the pain subsides, and range of motion is quickly increased. Then these low-risk treatments can be done all day long. This is a textbook positive response to an otherwise nagging ailment.
Keep your eyes peeled for some videos on what we do for these mornings when you feel like your pillow was a rock. And until then, resist the urge to stretch!
….oh and for those of you wondering, and my mother reading, it was the massive potholes that took out both passenger-side tires, yes the tow truck driver laughed at me, and no my professors had no sympathy for me or my neck. But I did ace that practical ::insert smiley face here::