Your neck is so stiff you can barely look over your shoulder. The space between your shoulder blades feels like someone’s got your spine in a vice grip. Your shoulders are so close to your ears it looks like you’re trying to start a new fashion in earrings. This is not a pleasant situation.
And yet, despite all the neck and shoulder stretches you do, in spite of all the neck massages you receive, the pain continues to persist. You may even have had an MRI or x-ray that showed “nothing is wrong” with your back. But if nothing’s wrong, why the heck does it hurt so bad it wakes you up in the middle of the night?
Here’s the secret…there really is nothing wrong with your neck and mid back. The pain is coming from somewhere else – your hips.
This makes absolutely no sense when we look at the body from the western medical perspective which divides the body into parts and pieces. If your neck hurts, they look at your neck, from C1 (the first vertebra in your spine) to C7 (the last “neck” vertebra). But this is kind of short sighted when you consider that C7 connects to T1 – the first thoracic vertebra – and T1 to T2, so on and so forth, all the way down to your sacrum, the triangular shaped bone at the bottom of your spine.
Lo and behold, your sacrum lies between your (drum roll, please) hip bones! So, if your pelvis is restricted, tilted, shifted or imbalanced, it’s going to travel upward, right into your neck and mid back.
Now it’s all starting to come together, right? The body is a system where each piece and part is dependent on every other piece for function and balance. So, neck and back pain sufferer, how do you address the restrictions in your hips?
First, stretch your quads. Hip flexors – the muscles the bend your knee to your chest – get really tight when you sit a lot, which pretty much everyone in western society does more than they should (yes, even if you go to the gym every day). These guys drag your pelvis forward and cause a “swayback” appearance in your lower back. Lacking support from below, your neck and mid back get really tight to keep you upright.
Second, make sure your glutes and hamstrings are working. Do glute and ham exercises, but NOT the ones that require a machine. Machines are for rehab and they don’t really give you functional movement. The best way to train your body is with body weight and free weight exercises that force you to use deep postural muscles to support the movement.
Some good examples of glute and hamstring exercises are deadlifts, squats and kettlebell swings. Body weight squats can be quite effective for anyone who has lazy glute and hamstring muscles, but I like to add in a kettlebell at chest height because it forces you to keep your upper body back over your heels. When you kip forward and point your chest at the ground, you’re just feeding the tight hip flexor pattern.
Third, get good bodywork from a structural practitioner who can help you learn your physical imbalances. It’s pretty hard to change something you’re not aware of, so if you’re blithely going about your day with a crooked pelvis for 23.5 hours, seven days a week, half an hour of glute and hamstring exercises aren’t going to change anything. Repatterning your body is all about changing your habits, and the exercises you do should carry over into every aspect of your daily life.