This article first appeared in Today's Dallas Woman, Dec. 1997

Dealing with Neck Pain

Tips that Help

That Thanksgiving turkey with the trimmings you ate last month was a prelude to a hectic period of shopping, entertaining, decorating, and celebrating.

But in between the office parties, special dinners, and shopping, you might have the feeling that something isn't quite right. You may wake up, day after day, with a body that is stiff and sore. Maybe you gobble aspirin by the handful to try to get rid of the headache that just won't go away. Or perhaps you have problems with a persistent sore throat, even though you're not coming down with a cold.

Like most of us, you may be tempted to ignore these minor aches and pains. But don't shrug of that shoulder, neck, or head pain. What you might be putting down to stress of the holiday season could actually be neck misalignment of dislocation.

People generally associate neck pain with car or job-related accidents. Any accident that causes the head to whip back and forth can cause hypermobility, a condition in which ligaments that support the head and neck are streched or torn, creating much pain and immobility.

What most people don't realize is that everyday living can also cause neck problems. The neck or cervical spine consists of discs, nerves, ligaments, and seven small bones. It is these small bones that support your 14-pound head. Spend some time carrying around a 14-pound bowling ball, and you'll understand how hard your neck works.

If your neck is healthy, it should have a slight forward curve and provide an extensive range of motion. Take a moment to gently turn your head from side to side. If you have less than a 90 degree range of motion when doing this minor exercise, you could be experiencing neck problems.

If left untreated, neck problems can cause more difficulties down the road. Stretched tissues or a cervical area that is out of alignment can irritate nerves that pass through that area. As a result, nerves in you arms and hands can become inflamed. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, one major job injury of the 1990's, is traced to cervical misalignment. Untreated neck problems can also cause jaw pain, blurred vision, degenerative joint disease, as well as migraine headaches.

The good news is that neck problems can be minimized with a few simple steps.

Good posture Activities that you do every day -- such as sitting and walking -- place a real strain on your cervical bones and tissues. To reduce the strain, sit with your feet flat on the floor or on a low footstool so your knees are slightly higher than your hips. Avoid hunching forward while typing or working. When standing or walking, keep your head level and eyes straight ahead. When most of us stand, we tend to tilt our head downward and forward (like a turtle) without realizing it.

Proper sleeping position A firm mattress is your best bet for avoiding neck problems. If you can't afford a new mattress, invest in a bed board that can be placed between you mattress and box spring. Whether you're sleeping on a firm mattress or need that board, avoid sleeping on your stomach. Instead, sleep on your back with a pillow under your head -- a single pillow is all you need, or better yet, a cervical pillow.

Neck exercises When done right, neck exercises help increase flexibility and strengthen your neck muscles. Take some time during the day to GENTLY and SLOWLY flex and extend your head and tilt it from side-to-side. Also take some time to do a neck check -- make sure your head is held straight (not forward) and your shoulder are unhunched.

Stress reduction The idea of stress reduction, especially during this time of year, can seem laughable. The truth is, reducing your stress load can greatly benefit your neck. Methods of stress reduction range from biofeedback and yoga (which is also outstanding for strengthening you neck muscles), to therapeutic massage.

If you're in any kind of accident, no matter how minor, seek chiropractic care immediately. The pain of soft-tissue injury may not be felt until days later -- and the eventual effects (including chronic headaches, joint problems, and numbness in the arms and hands) may not be experienced for a long time. Getting immediate help can help avoid the long range problems of cervical misalignment.

Even if you haven't been in an accident, visit a doctor of chiropractic if you experience any kind of neck, shoulder, or head discomfort. If your problem is cervical misalignment, the problem will be treated through gentle chiropractic adjustments and soft-tissue manipulation. If your problem is related to other factors, the chiropractor will refer you to another health care specialist.

In short, while your busy buying gifts for others during the upcoming holiday season, take a little time to give yourself a gift as well -- a health neck throughout the entire year.

Suzan J. Smith, D.C., is a chiropractor in Carrollton. She teaches yoga classes on a regular basis. She has released a yoga video for beginners and intermediates and a second yoga video for pregnant women.

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