By Amanda Wolfe
The human’s body is a diverse and complex structure. It is a well-oiled machine… or at least it’s supposed to be. It’s similar to a car in many ways. You see, a car is a solid, technical, and predictable machine, but each different model has slight variations. We as humans all have the same general anatomical building blocks, and we are for the most part predictable, but we are still all slightly different and unique. Unfortunately, we are also similar to cars in that when something is leaking, or out of place, it can mean serious trouble. Cars can have a broad range of problems, from the tires to the engine, and the gas tank to the air conditioning unit. Some problems have an effect on comfort; some are debilitating, some develop over long periods of natural wear and tear, while others are caused by sudden trauma. Our bodies are much the same.
Like cars, a wide range of these problems that occur can be solved fairly easily, but it also requires time and patience. Today, we are going to take a specific look at the neck, its structure, three specific and common problems, and how massage therapy can help solve these problems. Let’s dive in!
The neck is a small area of the body, but it is packed with essential muscles, bones, nerves passageways, veins, arteries, and more. Today, let’s mainly focus on the musculature of our necks. The neck is responsible for all of the “simple” movements of the head. We may not have to think much when we are flexing our necks to read a text, or shifting our gaze back and forth from one thing to another, but there is a lot involved in even the slightest turn of the head. The neck is made up of many different muscles, but the muscles that tend to take the most wear-and-tear are the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), the levator scapula, the scalenes, and the upper fibers of the trapezius. There are many other important muscles, but for now, lets focus on these few main ones.
The SCM muscle runs from the mastoid process all the way down to the clavicle and sternum. It is a very prominent muscle that is heavily involved in both rotation, lateral flexion, and bilateral flexion of the neck (Most of the other muscles perform the same actions as well!). This muscle is necessary for shaking and nodding your head, and turning to look at someone. The scalenes are a group of three small muscles in the lateral/anterior neck. They also help to laterally flex the neck and rotate the head. These are tricky muscles to work on because there are several major veins and nerves sandwiched between them. Even though they are a relatively delicate area, they are still critical and should not be forgotten. These muscles are contracted when holding a phone between your ear and shoulder, or any similar action. The levator scapula starts in the first few cervical vertebrae, and it runs all the way down to attach on parts of the scapula. It is responsible for many actions in the scapula and the neck. It’s main actions in the neck are also lateral flexion and rotation, as well as extension. You use it when changing lanes in traffic, and also cradling a phone between your ear and neck. Lastly, the trapezius is a very large muscle that runs from the base of the skull, down to the shoulder, and also down from C-7 to T-12. It’s upper fibers help to laterally flex and rotate the neck, and also extend the neck. It also contributes to cradle a phone and do any other motion of the neck. Since it is also involved in movements of the scapula, simple things like carrying a purse over your shoulder can affect your neck. These primary muscles of neck movements are obviously not the only ones, but they are the most prominent, well known, and most affected muscles. Now that we are familiar with these major muscles and their movements, lets dive into some of the most common issues we can find amongst these muscles.
The first and the most common problem we find in the neck is a “knot.” When someone says “I have a knot” what they mean is they have what we call a trigger point. A trigger point, in simple terms, is an adhesion in your muscle fibers. Our muscles are made up of many small bundles of fibers; imagine a tightly bound stalk of straw or hay. When we repetitively contract a muscle in the same way over and over, or we just put too much strain on a muscle, it can cause these little fibers to begin to stick to one another and become too tightly bound together. This is what causes those small and sometimes painful lumps that most people call “knots.” When these knots develop, blood flow is decreased, and toxins build up.
Massage therapy is vital to working out these trigger points. Trigger point therapy is direct, focused, deep pressure to these annoying bumps and lumps. Friction and cross fiber friction is helpful for rapidly increasing blood flow to the oxygen-starved area. Long, deep, compression holds will help to microscopically break up that adhesion to give your body a chance to repair itself and correct the problem. Trigger point therapy can take several session to eradicate some of the larger issues fully, but clients will start to notice the results right away. When someone develops a trigger point over weeks or even months of repetitive motion and strain, they can’t expect instant healing. Yes, the trigger points can be reduced and relieved after only one session, but it can take several times working on that spot to heal that trigger point fully. Hydration, rest, good posture, and other general self-care will also help to speed up the healing process. Trigger point therapy is simple, but it takes a good therapist to be able to feel and pinpoint the root of the problem, and find the right mix of friction, compression, and other massage techniques such as effleurage and petrissage.
The second, fairly common problem in the neck is whiplash. The technical term for this injury is cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD). This injury is most common in people who have been in a car accident; however, people can also get it from roller coasters or any swift back and forth jerking motions of the head and neck. Whiplash has a lot of effect on the cervical vertebrae, especially C-1 and C-2, and also most of the neck muscles, particularly the SCM and the levator scapula. There can obviously be varying degrees of this particular neck injury. Someone who was on a roller coaster may experience mild, acute symptoms, while someone who was rear-ended at 40 miles per hour will most likely experience painful, chronic symptoms that frequently flare up. The common symptoms sometimes do not appear until a day or so after the incident occurred, and these symptoms include neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, headaches, dizziness, trouble sleeping comfortably, numbness or tingling in various areas, and in severe cases some people even experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, jaw pain and changes in vision. As you can see, whiplash is a serious issue! Many people, particularly car accident victims, suffer from whiplash and they live with the repercussions for months or even years.
There are many ways you can help their mild cases of whiplash, such as ice, rest, and stretching yourself. However, many people with severe or chronic whiplash find themselves resorting to months of exercises, physical therapy, and even sometimes injections. Individuals with whiplash are often desperate and don’t realize how much of a positive affect massage therapy would have on their particular injury. Whiplash affects most of the muscles of your neck. All the major muscles help flex and extend the neck. Since whiplash is sudden, fast, and harsh extension and flexion (whipping back and forth, hence the name), it has a drastic effect on the SCM, scalenes, levator scapula, the trapezius, and even the less common muscles. Since all of these major muscles help with the back and forth motion, they are all compromised during whiplash. Once the incident has passed and any extreme soreness or inflammation has subsided, massage therapy can be the difference between months and years of suffering and a relatively quick and lasting recovery.
These compromised neck muscles have become tight, tense, and have most likely developed the previously mentioned trigger points. Regular deep tissue massages following a whiplash injury can help to reach the deeper levels of the muscles to help speed up the healing process. One of the biggest benefits is the impact that massage has on the circulatory system; massage increases blood flow to the area, and that increases the oxygen delivery to the area and promotes faster healing from any harm. Massage will also greatly help to break down trigger points and lessen the amount of scar tissue that will develop. Any time muscles are injured, or compromised scar tissue tends to develop. This development can be slowed and lessened by frequent massages, but these massages must begin as soon as possible to help reduce the amount of scar tissue. Once scar tissue develops it can still be helped, but it is much easier and much more permanent and sustainable to protect against something than to try and help it once it has already developed.
Stretching is another important part of the healing process for whiplash and any other neck problem. Stretching tight muscles will help to increase the range of motion by restoring the muscles natural and prime elasticity. A good therapist will know how to perform passive stretches on you, as well as demonstrate and recommend dynamic stretches for you to do on your own. Stretching, coupled with massage, can add infinite benefit to your treatment and is an excellent way to maintain progress between sessions.
While massage therapy is one of the most thorough, long lasting, quick acting ways to help with the detriments of whiplash, sometimes the injury is severe and needs more than a massage. Always be sure to see your doctor for a definite diagnosis. Some people find themselves also need the help of a physician or chiropractor in more severe cases. The bottom line is that Whiplash is a common injury with a broad range of symptoms and outcomes, but no matter how mild or severe it is, massage therapy can and will do much to substantially reduce the painful symptoms and help to speed up the recovery process. While it is best to see a massage therapist soon after the injury, they can still benefit greatly down the road when the injury has been unattended or left long-lasting effects that nothing else can relieve.
Lastly, another prevalent issue involving the neck is the dreaded tension headache. They are common, they are easy to treat, and they aren’t usually long lasting, but man does they tend to throw a damper on your day! Anybody that suffers from headaches knows what I’m talking about. That long, dull, aching pain that just annoys you with its constant throb. You can feel that it’s radiating up from your neck… but why? Well, it’s usually quite simple. The issues in your neck that created this obnoxious headache is created much the same as the trigger points previously discussed. When we repeatedly contract a muscle, it tends to become tight and develop those awful little (or sometimes big!) knots. Now, you have to wonder why neck pain is causing a headache. Well, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If you clog a drain in your sink, the problem is originating at the stopped up area, but the effects of that clog don’t stop there. If that clog sits there just long enough before you know it the whole drain is backed up and your sink is overflowing with the water that can’t get through! The issue is not the water itself filling up the sink, but it’s the clog that is causing the problem; the water is just the result of the clog. When we get those trigger points, tight muscles, or over exert and strain out necks, it makes sense that those issues would then create a flood of other problems! All the muscles in our body are intricately interwoven and connected. The muscles in your neck leading up to the muscles in your head, and so when the neck muscles become tight they put more pressure and strain on the muscles in our head.
These tension headaches are dull, but not fun at all. Think back to the last time you experienced one… or saw someone else that had one. What is the most natural thing to do? Rub your scalp, and sometimes also your neck. Why? Because it is innate in us. We instinctively know that massage will help, and it is a natural response to pain – especially headaches! Self-massages is great, and all, but let’s are real. A professional massage therapist working on the problem is just so much better! When you can fully relax while skilled hands dig in and find those clogs and work them out, it is some of the best relief for this dreaded annoyance. Rather than treating the terrible ache with pain-blocking pills, it is much better to find the clog and deal with it. Through trigger point therapy and focused, deep massage those tight spots and trigger points can be relaxed, released, and blood flow can return. So, moral of the story – toss those pain killers out the door and opt for a massage! Not only will it help relieve the pain, but it will go a step beyond and solve the problem that is causing the pain.
Overall, the neck is diverse, important, and a common problem area for most; in a world where we are constantly looking down, side to side, and overexerting ourselves, this is no surprise. Thankfully, massage therapists know how to help these three common problems. There are many other injuries and conditions involving the neck, but these three are common and easy to treat with the support of an experienced and well-trained therapist. When faced with any or all of these problems, don’t lose hope or feel discouraged. Through trigger point therapy, increased blood flow, stretching, and other techniques a good therapist will have you feeling your best in no time!