Neck Pain Remedies for Cyclists: Treating the Source

Neck pain is one of the more common ailments affecting cyclists, and it tends to persist regardless of fitness level.  To understand why many of us have neck pain, it is important to understand the origin of the pain.  Get ready for some anatomy! 

Like Spacers on a Cassette

Our back bones–the spine–are composed of many boney vertebrae stacked on one another, separated by a cartilage disk (Inter-vertebral disc), much like the spacers on a cassette.  When we are born, these discs contain a lot of fluid (hydrophilic), which allows the spine to absorb vertical forces while being able to rebound back to its original shape.  As we age, these inter-vertebral discs begin to dry out and become more fibrous.

Spinal fluid in cartilage causing neck painThis is what accounts for changes in our height as we age–we tend to shrink! When you are older, these inter-vertebral disks are less malleable due to a lack of water content, which means they are less likely to dis-form.  The discs have a nucleus, or center, which is very jelly-like and helps to spread out forces by moving and compressing.  With good posture, your neck will have a natural lordotic curvature, meaning it curves forward and then back, as it goes down from the head to the shoulders.

Nowadays, many people work on computers all day and are looking at their phones just as much, resulting in generally poor neck posture. This poor posture means that the chin is pushed forward and the head is rotated down.  Now, take out your phone and scroll through the Veloce website. Pay attention to where your head is and what position your neck is in.  Most likely, you have poor posture.  Being that many of us are in this position throughout the day, we put a lot of stress on our necks.

Of Posture and Age

Now back to the anatomy!  When we continually put our necks in a forward and downward position, it affects the shape of the inter-vertebral discs in our necks.  Our bones in our spine on the front side will compress the discs on the front side. This dis-forms the discs and moves the jelly-like nucleus backwards.  If we are young and have very wet discs, the cartilage and nucleus will rebound right back into shape. Likewise, when we are older, the discs will not compress as much because of how dry they are, so the nucleus will not move very far.  The issue is most prominent between the age of 30 to 55 years old, when the nucleus is moist enough to be able to move freely, but the disc is not dry enough to limit the movements of the nucleus.  The constant pressure on the front half of the disc due to posture will push the nucleus backward, sometimes causing herniation or bulging of the nucleus out of the back of the disc.  This is the pain that many of us feel.  If not treated, the herniation will progress, and will eventually pop and leak the nucleus into the rest of the spinal cord. The next step is when the nucleus is then separated from the disc, causing even more pain.

So now that we know what is going on anatomically, what can we do to lower pain levels and prevent the progression of disc herniation and leaking?

Neck Pain Adjustments

Spinal Flexion and Extension

(Disclaimer: if any exercise increases the pain felt, stop immediately–do not start exercise programs without talking to your physician or physical therapist.  Individuals with a spinal cord injury or who have issues with blood flow through the neck and head, do not attempt these exercises!)

The Double-Chin

Being that the issue is derived from compression of the front part of the disc; we need to compress the disc on the back to help push the nucleus forward.  To do this, get into a position where your shoulders are directly above your hips.  While looking straight forward move your head backwards keeping your nose pointing forward, not upward. The result will make you look like you have multiple chins.  This exercise is used to strengthen the rear, lower-neck muscles that tend to not work when you are looking down at your phone or computer screen.

The Head-Roll

Another exercise is to sit in a neutral position as before, and then roll and push your head back.  If this feels tight, take a small towel and wrap it around your lower neck, holding it in front of you as your head rolls backward.  Make sure to keep slight tension on the towel. This helps increase range of motion of the occipital-atlas joint (base of skull on vertebrae 1 joint) which is where the majority of your neck-bending forward and backward occurs.

These simple exercises should help in reducing neck pain.  Make sure to try these exercises for a few minutes a day and then progress to longer holds.  There are manual techniques available for use in physical therapy clinics and at home as well, however it is important that these are given by a practicing physical therapist, and only after examination for possible complications.

If you have any questions or specific pain points you would like addressed, leave a comment below or send us an email!

 

Patrick Brown

Contributor

Patrick hails from Upstate New York, in a little town named Perth. He has been involved in endurance sports for a number of years, and has competed in the triathlon, running, and cycling world. He earned a degree in Exercise Science from SUNY Cortland and is currently in the PhD program for Physical Therapy at the University of Scranton. Pat's primary cycling discipline is road.

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