What a Pain in the Neck by Kathy Celardo

written by Kathy Celardo, Pure Pilates Teacher

Since my 20’s, my neck has always been the bane of my existence.  “Is this going to hurt my neck?” was always my first thought before doing any movement. And reflecting on it now, it usually has hurt my neck in some way.  While I was never officially diagnosed with a cervical spine condition, I was told that my neck muscles were weak and letting my neck rest would allow the soreness to subside. 

I didn’t let neck discomfort stop me in those early days and I continued to rock climb, mountain bike, ski and run. I would tell myself that it wasn’t so bad; I can endure it.  Well, nearly thirty years later the discomfort became pain and it began to affect my everyday movements.  I never knew what would “tweak” my neck — like rolling over onto my side in the middle of the night, washing my hair or lifting something heavy.

Practicing Pilates over the last thirteen years has helped me to understand and find ways to improve my neck condition. Moving in a more comprehensive way and realizing the importance of core strength and stability was key.  But it never “fixed” my neck issue and I always prefaced each exercise with the thought, “how do I support my neck?” My internal ruminations regarding my neck really didn’t change all that much.  My neck was still “a pain in the neck”.

It wasn’t until I attended a Pilates movement conference when I had an epiphany. While doing a private session with a master teacher I was asked to do an abdominal curl. I began to support my head with my hands, lift my head and bow from my breastbone. The teacher asked, “why are your hands behind your head?”  I responded that I always support my neck.  The teacher then asked, “do you have a neck condition?” I said no. The teacher said, “OK, do an abdominal curl.” I realized I feared the thought of neck pain and automatically supported my head to prevent it. From that moment on, I began a series of exercises and stretches to improve my neck strength and mobility. It was an incredibly freeing and empowering experience — I do not need to be fearful of neck pain again.

I continue to do my neck strengthening and stretching exercises to this day. While my neck will never be perfect, I now have the confidence and freedom to move my body and my head with peace of mind and a smile.

Here are a few strengthening and stretching exercises for your neck. I hope they will help you as well. Please be mindful that it takes time to build the strength and confidence in neck movement so listen to your body.

Head Lift Sequence

  • Lying on your back, legs long. Lift only your head and look toward your toes for the count of 8. Do not lift your shoulders or breastbone.
  • Rest the head down.
  • Repeat for the count of 10.
  • Repeat for the count of 12.
  • Move your head from side to side to release.

Head Turn Sequence

  • Keeping your head on the mat and legs long, turn your face to the right. Back to center.
  • Again, keeping your head on the mat, turn your face to the left.
  • Do not let your chin drop toward your shoulder.
  • Back to center.
  • Two more sets.

Tiny Movement Sequence 

  • Keeping your head on the mat and legs long, imagine a pencil point on the tip of your nose. Draw a circle the size of a quarter on the ceiling. Smooth circles.  Spiral the circle to a medium circle, then a large circle.
  • Reverse large circle, then to medium circle, then to tiny circle 
  • 4 of each size circle.

Head Lift and Turn Sequence

  • Lying on your back, legs long. Lift only your head and look toward your toes. Do not lift your shoulders or breastbone.
  • Keep your head elevated.
  • Turn your head 10 inches past your right pinky toe.
  • Back to center.
  • Turn your head 10 inches past your left pinky toe.
  • Back to center.
  • 3 sets.
  • Rest head down.

Rest your head and move your head from side to side to release.

Gravity Neck Stretch

  • Sit tall on a chair or ball with belly pulled in; feet flat on floor.
  • Let your head drape down toward the floor.
  • 5 deep breaths as you let the weight of your head and gravity gently stretch the back of the neck.
  • Lift your head 1 inch up and hold there. You are activating the back of the neck muscles.
  • 3 deep breaths.
  • Let your head drape back down toward the floor again. Feeling the additional stretch to the back of the neck.
  • 5 deep breaths.
  • Give yourself a “double chin” as you stack your vertebrae ending with your eyes and face looking forward.

Side Neck Stretch

  • Looking straight ahead, drop your left ear toward your left shoulder; reach your right fingers down toward the floor.
  • Back to center.
  • Looking straight ahead, drop your right ear toward your right shoulder; reach your left fingers down toward the floor.
  • Back to center

Roll your shoulders forward and back to release.

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