Neck-Specific Exercise for Headaches & Neck Pain

As screens (televisions, computers, and smartphones/tablets) become an increasingly important part of daily life, many people gradually take on a more slumped posture, which can place added strain on the neck and shoulders, raising the risk for neck pain and headaches. Luckily, it’s possible to improve forward head posture, rounded shoulder posture, and scapular instability with neck-specific exercises and chiropractic care. 

In a 2018 study, patients with forward head posture performed either scapular stabilization or neck stabilization exercises for 30 minutes three times a week for four weeks. Participants in both groups experienced improvements related to their craniocervical angle and muscle activity around the upper back and neck, with greater results reported by the scapular stabilization group.  

Several studies have shown similar results for improving forward head posture using both scapular and neck stabilization exercises. In another study, high schoolers with forward head posture performed scapular and neck stabilization exercises and exhibited good posture up to four months later.

A 2019 study looked at the effect of a six-week intervention featuring manual therapy and/or stabilizing exercises on 60 women with neck pain and forward head posture. Participants in both the manual therapy/stabilization exercise-combo group and the stabilization exercises-only group reported better outcomes with respect to head posture, pain reduction, and improved function, but the results were best in the combined treatment group. The authors concluded that manual therapy adds a meaningful role to a structured exercise program that addresses scapular and neck instability and forward head and rounded shoulder posture. 

Doctors of chiropractic often incorporate exercise training in their treatment recommendations, especially when postural issues may contribute to the patient’s symptoms, like neck pain and headaches.

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Chiropractic Methods for Treating Neck Pain

When it comes to neck pain, many patients seek out chiropractic care. In fact, there are several studies demonstrating that manual therapies performed by doctors of chiropractic can offer significant benefits for non-specific or mechanical neck pain as well as neck pain arising from injuries related to sports, car accidents, and falls. What are some of these manual therapies?

Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) involves moving the head and neck to a firm end-range of movement followed by a fast, thrust aimed at specific joints that are fixed, subluxated (partially out of position), and tender. The thrust is described as a “high-velocity, low amplitude” (HVLA) movement, and it’s also called “an adjustment”, which is more unique to the chiropractic profession. Joint cavitation (the “cracking” sound) often occurs as gas (nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide) either forms within or is released from the joint.  

Spinal mobilization (SM) is a low-velocity, low amplitude movement that is typically slow and rhythmic, gradually increasing the depth of a back-and-forth movement, often combined with manual traction. Here, joint cavitation is less common. 

Exercise training that focuses on strengthening the deep neck flexor muscles and other exercises that are specifically designed for each individual patient based on their specific needs can result in better treatment outcomes compared to a generalized, non-specific exercise program. Studies in which SMT/SM and exercise are combined report better long-term outcomes than SMT/SM alone, but SMT/SM typically out-performs exercise therapy alone.

Physical therapy modalities (PTM) can include ultrasound, interferential, low and high volt, galvanic current, diathermy, lasers (class 3B and IV primarily), ultraviolet, ionto- and phono- phoresis, pulsed electro-magnetic field, hot/cold, and more.

Muscle release techniques (MRTs) include massage therapy, myofascial release, trigger point therapy, muscle energy techniques, active release therapy, gua sha, and many more.

Cervical traction devices can be used either in the office or at home, depending on the patient’s needs; however, it’s common for both approaches to be used. The obvious benefits of home traction include the ability to repeat its use multiple times a day, and it’s generally more cost effective. Types include static traction that can be applied sitting or supine (on the back) and intermittent traction, which is typically performed supine and is computerized, and hence, is often limited to in-office use only.

Which approaches are used in the course of care depend on the preference of the patient as well as the treating chiropractor. It’s important to discuss your preferences with your chiropractor when seeking care.

Headaches / Neck Pain: Let’s Have Some Pillow Talk!

Individuals with neck pain may find it difficult for get a night of restful, restorative sleep due to pain keeping them awake or interrupting their slumber. Not only can a restless night make it more difficult to complete tasks related to everyday living or make neck pain worse, but poor sleep habits over time can raise one’s risk for chronic disease and even early death—perhaps as much as physical inactivity or a bad diet. When treating a patient with neck pain, doctors of chiropractic often inquire about the patient’s sleeping position and pillow, as addressing these factors may be important for getting a good night’s rest.

When it comes to a “good” position for the head while sleeping, most experts would recommend assuming a position that most closely mimics a good upright posture. If lying on the back, the head should not be forced toward the chest (hyper-flexed) or dropped too far backward into hyper-extension. When lying on the side, the head should not be forced upward or downward, away from the neutral position. If you habitually sleep on your stomach—which is generally NOT a good position for the neck due to the prolonged static rotation—you may want to consider a very thin pillow (or not using a pillow) to not force the neck too far up or down when rotated. Placing a body-pillow between the knees that extends up in front of the pelvis and chest can function as a “kick-stand” to keep you from rolling onto your stomach during the night.

What about pillow materials?  There are many to choose from, such as feathers, foam (memory and others), water, buckwheat, and/or combinations of these. While there is probably not a “best” choice, there are characteristic differences that are worth discussing. For example, memory foam molds nicely to the contours of the head and neck but can be hot and may have an unpleasant odor. Latex foam has the advantage of molding well to contours without becoming hot and comes in various densities to suit preferences, which can be quite helpful for those with neck pain and headaches. Generally, higher density foam offers less breakdown and more support. Latex is also resistant to mold and dust mites, another distinct advantage. Feathers and down pillows can mold to fit the body contours nicely but have a tendency to lose that initial position as the feathers often spread out while sleeping. Some people are also bothered by allergies or skin sensitivities making feather pillows and certain types of foam undesirable. Buckwheat hulls tend to mold well and be cool but then can be noisy when moving. Mattress firmness should also be taken into consideration, as the amount of “sinking in” will affect the pillow thickness decision. 

If musculoskeletal pain is interfering with your sleep, consult with your doctor of chiropractic to help determine the best position and pillow for your individual case. Your chiropractor may also offer nutritional recommendations with the aim of improving sleep quality.

How Does Chiropractic Stack Up for Low Back Pain?

Doctors of chiropractic offer a non-surgical, treatment protocol for both acute and chronic low back pain (LBP), as do several other healthcare delivery systems. However, due to patient preference and a rising concern for potentially harmful side-effects, many LBP patients seek management strategies that offer a natural, non-pharmaceutical approach, of which chiropractic is the most commonly sought after practitioner-type. So what evidence is there regarding the benefits of chiropractic vs. other forms of care in managing LBP and its associated pain-related functional loss? 

A 2018 study published in the online Journal of the American Medical Association focused directly on this question by comparing patient outcomes of those receiving usual medical care to a second group of patients that also received chiropractic care.

Data was collected at three sites—two large military medical centers and one smaller hospital at a military training site—over the 3.5-year time period. Eligible participants included active duty United States service members between 18 and 50 years in age who were diagnosed with mechanical low back pain. 

Patients in each group received usual medical care for six weeks that included self-care, medications, physical therapy, and pain clinic referral. Participants in one group also received chiropractic care that included spinal manipulative therapy in the low back and adjacent regions and additional therapeutic procedures such as rehabilitative exercise, cryotherapy, superficial heat, and other manual therapies. 

Up to six weeks after the conclusion of care, the researchers reported that patients in the  chiropractic group scored higher with respect to LBP intensity, disability, perceived improvement, satisfaction, and medication use. The researchers concluded that this trial clearly shows the need for chiropractic care for those suffering from LBP—reminding the reader that current LBP guidelines have embraced chiropractic care as a FIRST line of treatment for LBP.

This is not the first study to show the benefits of chiropractic care, as prior high-quality studies have reported higher patient satisfaction levels, less medication use, higher quality of life scores, and less LBP-related disability and recurrence rates for patients receiving chiropractic treatment vs. usual medical care. This article was published in a highly regarded medical journal (JAMA) and CLEARLY supports the need for chiropractic care in the management of LBP.

Can the Cervical Spine Cause Shoulder Pain?

Subacromial impingement (SAI) is a common injury in sporting activities that require overhead motions, especially among pitchers, quarterbacks, and swimmers. Not everyone responds to treatment to the same degree, and a new study that reviewed two specific cases may offer a possible reason: the neck.

One of the two cases involved a high school football quarterback and the other a collegiate swimmer. Both participants presented with signs and symptoms of subacromial impingement with minimal neck complaints and few clinical signs that initially supported neck involvement.

Of interest, both patients had poor posture that included forward head carriage and rounded forward shoulders. During the initial examination, both had shoulder pain and weakness while raising their arm up from the side, a “classic” sign of rotator cuff muscle injury and subacromial bursitis. However, neither case did well when treatment addressed only the shoulder, prompting their doctors to test whether or not the patients’ poor posture had a role in their shoulder discomfort.

Once the patients performed chin retraction exercises followed by chin retraction plus extension exercises (three sets of ten repetitions) to improve their posture, they experienced a complete improvement in shoulder impingement and muscle weakness. 

The author suspects that both patients experienced intermittent irritation of the C5 nerve root in the neck, which innervates the rotator cuff muscles, leading to their shoulder pain and weakness. In both cases, the two athletes performed home-based exercises and returned to their sports and did not have further problems during the rest of the season. 

These two cases are GREAT examples of why doctors of chiropractic evaluate the whole patient to identify any and all factors that may contribute to a patient’s chief complaint. It is very common to find cervical spine joint dysfunction in patients with shoulder pain, and success in treatment favors treating both areas, of which (as noted in these case studies) the neck may be the most important focus.

Can Chiropractic Adjustments Help Headaches?

Experts report that 157 million work days are lost each year in the United States due to headaches at a cost of about $50 billion in work absenteeism and medical expenses. According to current estimates, about 18% of chronic headache patients are believed to have cervicogenic headaches (CGH), or headaches that originate from dysfunction in the neck. 

Many CGH sufferers utilize complementary and integrative health treatment approaches for neck pain and headaches, of which spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is the most common. While past studies have demonstrated SMT to be a superior form of treatment for CGH, no one has investigated how many treatments are needed to achieve the maximum clinical benefit for CGH patients – at least not until recently!

In order to determine what dose of SMT may best benefit patients with headaches originating from the neck, researchers randomized 256 CGH patients into four treatment groups that received 0, 6, 12, or 18 SMT treatments over the course of six weeks. The researchers found a dose-dependent relationship between SMT and days without CGH over the following year with patients in the 18 visit group experiencing 16 fewer days with CGH over the next twelve months than those in the zero treatment group.

The chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy treatment used in the study consisted of high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust manipulation in the neck and upper back regions (specifically, occiput to T3) aimed at sites with detected joint dysfunction (fixation or pain), which is typically the method most chiropractors determine where to apply spinal manipulation.

This study is VERY important for a few reasons: 1) it proves SMT helps patients with CGH; 2) it provides doctors of chiropractic with an idea of how many visits it may take to obtain optimum results; and 3) it can be used as a guideline when managing CGH patients, stressing the important point that EACH patient is UNIQUE and modifications may be appropriate depending on each case.

A Weak Core May Contribute to Hip Pain

When people think of hip pain, they generally turn to hip-specific exercises as a self–help strategy.  However, recent evidence shows there’s a correlation between poor core stability of the trunk and injury to the lower extremities, which includes the hips.  In March 2018, Belgian researchers reviewed data from nine previously published studies with a focus on the importance of core stability and its relationship to lower extremity musculoskeletal injuries in a healthy athletic population. The investigators reported that core strength, core proprioception (balance), and neuromuscular control (coordination) of the core are directly linked to the likelihood of lower extremity injuries.  

Let’s take a closer look at three specific core strengthening exercises that can be done relatively fast and are highly effective (you can view several demonstration videos on YouTube if you search for “stuart mcgill’s big-3 core exercises”).

1) The Curl-Up (abdominal strength): STEP 1 — Lie on your back, straighten your left leg, and bend your right leg, placing the right foot next to the left knee.  STEP 2 — Tuck your hands under your low back to prop up the lumbar curve (so it does not flatten out).  STEP 3 — Curl up by lifting your head, neck, and shoulders only a few inches off the floor (keep your chin tucked).  STEP 4 — Hold for 7–8 seconds (or work up to this).  STEP 5 — Slowly lower your trunk back to the ground.  Repeat five times with the right leg bent and five times with the left leg bent, while keeping the opposite leg straight.  This exercise helps reduce low back disk compression, which is significant when performing a conventional sit-up exercise.

 2) The Bird-Dog (core, back, and gluts):  STEP 1 — Kneel on all-fours (hands and knees).  STEP 2 — Keeping your back flat, lift and straighten out the LEFT arm and RIGHT leg parallel to the floor. STEP 3 — To further activate the core muscles, draw a square with the arm and leg while bracing the abdominal muscles (firm up your abs, as if to brace for being punched in the stomach). STEP 4 — Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side (repeat STEP 3 again). 

3) The Side-Bridge (obliques): STEP 1 — Lie on your side, elbow directly under your shoulder and bend your knees 90°. To increase the difficulty, keep the legs/knees straight. STEP 2 — Lift your hips off the ground so you are holding your weight with your elbow and knees (or feet). STEP 3 — Hold the “Up” position for as long as possible. STEP 4 — Repeat steps 1-3 on the opposite side. 

Doctors of chiropractic are trained to evaluate the entire person from the feet up to the head to identify issues elsewhere in the body that may contribute to or even cause the patient’s chief complaint. For many patients, managing hip-related conditions may involve treatment to address issues in the core (as described in this post), the lower back, and even the feet or knees!