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  • Writer's pictureJosh

Bullet Proofing the Spine part 1: The Cervical Spine

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

The entirety of human movement, both conscious and unconscious, begins as a neural impulse traveling from brain to body through the spinal cord. The spinal cord itself is rather fragile and sensitive, so the body protects it with the thick bones of the spine and the strong musculature of the core.

protective muscles of the core

However, there are some weak points in the armor of the spinal cord, the relatively soft disks of the spine situated between each vertebra. These disks are designed to be shock absorbers for the spine and to allow for movement of the torso. The system works wonderfully when kept in balance, but in a world full of sitting and poor postural habits, these disks are often pushed past their limits and degradation follows.

The spine is designed to spend large amounts of time in a neutral orientation, with a healthy amount and variety of movement in all directions. The primary directions of movement being forward flexion, backward extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. Over sitting can cause an excess amount of forward flexion, causing the front of the vertebral disks to begin to shorten and wear. This begins to alter the posture of the spine and put pressure on the spinal cord.

spine flexion and extension

A spinal cord being pressured in this way can lead to problems in any muscle or organ in the entire body. This is because all body systems are controlled by the nervous system, a system which is thrown into dysfunction when neural signals are impeded by impingement or inflammation.

Correcting Spinal Dysfunction

To correct the problem the spine has to be brought back into balance. And in a world where it's hard to avoid sitting, this means adding a healthy amount of other spinal movements, especially extension, into the movement diet.

There are many great exercises that can address these movement deficiencies, such as back bridges and brachiation, but often the spine and its surrounding musculature are already in such disarray that these movements can't be accomplished.

When this is the case it's best to rehab the spine through smaller and safer movements, until the core is properly stabilized and mobile to allow for these larger movement patterns. In this article we will explore some simple exercises one can do to restore function to the cervical spine. This will be followed by two further articles addressing the thoracic and lumbar spines respectively.

Roll of the Cervical Spine

cervical spine, nerves and arteries

All the vital blood and nerve supply of the brain passes through or near the cervical spine, making it incredibly important for overall health and function. However, the hollow core of the spine is the narrowest in this region, meaning it's also one of the easiest places in the entire spine to disrupt the spinal cord.

The cervical spine must also balance the skull on its peak, allowing full mobility of the head while still supporting the integrity of the cervical spine and all its contents. This is difficult to do if the cervical spine loses its proper curve. The neck often becomes straight and loses its curve all together or becomes hyper extended, with an excessive curve.

cervical curves

In both cases the two primary zones of cervical dysfunction are the sub-occipital region, where the spine and skull connect, and the cervical curve itself.

The sub-occiptial region is an area which is full of nerve endings, and dysfunction in this area is one of the most common causes of headaches and neck pain. This area is often extremely tight and immobile, putting pressure on these sensitive nerves and weakening the opposing deep neck flexors that help stabilize the cervical spine.

A simple way to begin addressing these issues is the chin tuck. The chin will move the sub-occipital region through its full range of motion, both mobilizing and strengthening it in the process. Also, when done properly, it will reactivate and begin strengthening the deep neck flexors, which are commonly weak and shut down.

chin tucks

To perform the chin tuck...

  • Stand tall, which can be done anywhere but some people find it's easier to perform this exercise in the beginning with their back and the back of the head against a wall.

  • Place your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth to activate neck stabilizers.

  • Looking straight ahead, lower your chin down as you pull it back into the neck. As if you were trying to give yourself a double chin.

  • You will notice when you do this the very back of the skull and top of the neck will pull apart and stretch. Try to stretch this through a full range but don't enter a range that causes pain.

  • Then do the opposite and push the chin out, bringing the back of the skull and the neck closer together.

  • Repeat this process 20 times in a slow and controlled manner.

Another common issue with the cervical spine is the musculature on the front of the neck, especially the anterior scalenes and SCM's, becoming overly tight. This has the effect of pulling the head forward and down and creating a forward head or even hunch back posture.

To tackle these tight anterior muscles, it's a good idea to implement a gentle and routine stretch.

anterior neck stretch

To stretch the anterior neck muscles...

  • Stand or sit up straight.

  • Bend the neck to one side while keeping the shoulders stationary.

  • Then slowly extend the neck and tilt the head backwards until you feel a stretch on the front of the neck.

  • Hold for 15-30 seconds while taking deep breaths.

  • Repeat this process on the other side.

  • Be sure not to cause pain, you want to feel a stretch but no pain or discomfort.

And finally, it's important to stretch the ligaments on the spine. These ligaments shorten over time and normally stretching doesn't do a good job of stretching them back out. In order to stretch a ligament, you need to hold the stretch for 15-20 minutes.

A common stretch for those who's neck have become straight and lost curve is to lay on the bed with the head hanging over the edge. However, since the reader may not know whether they have a straight cervical spine or excessively curved spine, I would recommend using a tool designed to restore proper curve no matter what your dysfunction.

There are cervical neck traction devices and curve restorers available online which are usually pretty cheap and do a great job. You simply lay your neck on the device for 15-20 minutes at least 2-3 days a week and it will slowly restore the proper cervical neck curve.

cervical traction device

There are a number or variations on these tools, but I've found the ones shaped like a wave seem to be the most fool proof and provide the most reliable results. Here is an amazon link to the one I personally use if you would like to try it.

You can also roll up a towel and place it under the neck curve, but I find it's difficult to shape appropriately and often flattens out quickly.

In Summary

The combination of mobilizing the sub-occipital region and deep neck flexors, along with stretching the anterior muscles of the neck and restoring the curve of the neck will go a long way towards unlocking the full functionality of the neck.

This will save you from countless headaches and neck pains along with potentially improving your breathing, focus and exercise execution.

However, this is just one part of the spine and it's important to restore the entire spine to full functionality for optimal health.

Check back soon for the next article in this series, addressing the thoracic spine.

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