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“No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for…10 minutes?!”

Mr. Incredible

Each time I have watched the Incredibles, I get a chuckle from the beginning interview scene. I especially enjoy the above quote by Mr. Incredible. 

When I talk to friends about the pain or tightness in their neck, I find they share a frustration similar to Mr. Incredible’s. 

They get their neck, upper back, and shoulders massaged out by a therapist, a friend, or some sort of vibrating machine. Or maybe they go to a chiropractor or physical therapist who gives their neck a few good twists and pops along with a deep massage too.

They feel good for a bit, maybe a few hours, if their lucky a few days. But, just like with Mr. Incredible’s dilemma, the pain and tightness come right back. They feel hopeless. ‘Can I ever make this go away for good?’

Yes, you can.

The problem is not your muscles

That’s right. I’ve never seen a patient with neck pain or tightness where the source of their issue was their muscles. It’s tempting to just keep digging and clawing at those tight traps, but the tension will keep coming back. 

Why? The pain and tension you feel in your neck and upper back are a reaction to the problem and not the source of your pathology. In almost every case, the origin of the issue is at the spine. Even more specific, the epicenter of your problems is typically found at the cervical discs.

The true source of your neck woes

I’m loving the animated movie examples this time. 

Remember in Disney’s Hercules when teenage Hercules tries to help his peers by catching the overthrown frisbee? He runs into a support column, and half of the marketplace starts to collapse. The more he tries to help, the more damage he causes until the whole place is demolished. 

Pillars like neck pain

You can picture a similar event happening with an injury at your spine. A vast array of chemicals and products arrive on scene to help with a disc injury. If the injury endures, these products keep hanging around until everything around them is annoyed and on alert. 

The nerves exiting from your spine are irritated, and one side effect is often pain and tension of the nearby muscles. Your neck muscles, traps, and other upper back and shoulder muscles give you grief in reaction to the issue emanating from your spine.

So what happens when you stretch and massage your neck and throw heat on there afterward? You might enjoy a little temporary relief, but your spine still isn’t healed, your nerves are still irritated, and your muscles are going to tense right back up.

So how in the world do you heal a disc? You desensitize it.

Here’s what you should do first

What I am about to suggest to you might sound so simple you feel offended, but you’re going to love the results if you do it. 

Manual cervical traction with a few other gentle hands-on techniques performed by a skilled clinician is incredibly effective in this situation. But what’s the next best thing if you don’t have that luxury?

Lie down. Best home exercise plan ever right? The spine, especially your cushiony force absorbing friends, your discs, takes on a lot of force all day. Those discs are under high stress from the time you wake to the time you go back to bed.

lady lying down to get out of neck pain
Spine recovery…that’s how it’s done right there

Think back to the most stressful hour you’ve ever experienced at work. Imagine trying to endure that 16 hours per day, every day! So just like anything else that’s under a lot of stress all of the time, your spine needs some breaks during the day.

A break for your discs can simply be laying down on your back, preferably on a firm surface with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent. Do it a few times for a few minutes each to break up your day.

When your boss pokes their head into your office and asks why you’re lying down, I suggest you reply, ‘Doctor’s orders.’ If you want to offer more explanation, try, ‘I’m desensitizing my cervical discs.’

Here’s what you should stop doing first

Stop stretching your neck! 

You might have agreed with everything I’ve said up until this point, and now you’ve hit the point of disbelief and anger. Hopefully not anger, but it wouldn’t be the first time. 

When I test for someone’s neck pain, I ask them to stretch their neck to the end range forward and back, side to side, rotating right and left, etc. These are provocative tests that tell me what reproduces their pain.

Stretching is simply holding those provocative, painful positions for extended periods of time. Your neck is not in pain because it’s lacking range of motion. Your neck is in pain because you keep bothering your spine all day! It’s been dealing with stressful Mr. Gravity all day, and now it’s being torqued around into painful positions and held there for minutes at a time.

This is what we call a trigger, and we’ve talked about this a few times already (here and here). Think of it like that time you were trying to take an important exam in a quiet room, and that person next to you keeps tapping their pencil on their desk. It builds and builds in your head until you want to explode.

That’s how I think a sensitized spine in pain views stretching. The more you do it, the more the spine is angry at you and manifests its anger through pain and tension. The stretch might even feel good in the moment, but your spine will send the message loud and clear soon enough: ‘I don’t like that, please stop! Here’s some more pain and tension to show you how I feel about what you’ve done to me today!’

man sidebending neck

Take home

If you’re at the end of this article, good chances are you read this whole thing because you are experiencing the problems we just discussed, or you at least know someone who has. 

Are you going to try what I suggested? Well, I obviously think you should because:

  1. I’ve seen this work over and over and over again with often life-changing results.
  2. If you really are still having this problem, then you haven’t figured out how to solve this problem on your own, and you need some help.

There’s obviously a lot more we can do to help neck pain and tension, but if you consistently follow these simple suggestions, I’m confident you’ll see some encouraging results. You and Mr. Incredible might finally be able to experience some long term relief for once!