Neck rolls are one of the easiest and best exercises you can possibly do for your neck. Learn more by watching the video below.
There are few things more devitalizing than headaches. They suck the life out of us. They put us in a crabby mood and make us want to do nothing but sit around. I remember one of my patients telling me that now that her headaches were gone, she had to go and apologize to her friends for being so irritable for the last decade due to her constant pain. Headaches and their release are actually life changing things.
One of the major keys to resolving headaches is the trigeminal nerve. I was working with someone's trigeminal nerve the other day, which is a complex technique involving many moving parts, when it suddenly dawned on me that patients can do self work on the trigeminal nerve! Now, that might not seem like a big deal to most people, but that's only because most people have no idea how important the trigeminal nerve is. The trigeminal nerve comes out of the skull deep to the jaw and wraps all over the head and face. It's the major nerve responsible for headaches, and most chronic head, neck, and jaw pain is at least partially due to trigeminal nerve irritation. Being able to release this nerve on their own at home is proving to be a major help for many of my patients.
This technique gently releases the nerve, making changes all over the head, face, jaw, and neck. All you have to do is get in the position, hold the position for about one minute on each side, and breathe deeply while you do so. The deep breathing changes the pressure inside the skull and helps to move and release the nerve. This technique has proven so useful to my patients that I now teach it to most of my patients with head and neck pain and to other bodyworkers in my Balancing the Head and Neck course. I consider it one of the first steps in managing head and neck problems.
The best way to imagine what we're doing with this technique is improving the blood flow through the opening in your skull, freeing the nerve and allowing it to function better. This area can become very stagnant, and stagnation means too much pressure and not enough flow of the fluids through the area. This pressure causes irritation. The technique helps to resolve this pressure by improving the blood flow through the region.
Instructions: Get into a hands-and-knees position and then drop your bottom to your ankles, and drop your head to the floor. Turn your head to the left so that you are resting the right side of your forehead on the ground (aim for the part of your forehead mid-way between the center of your forehead and your right ear). You'll probably feel an odd but painless pressure deep to your jaw on the right side. This is where the trigeminal nerve exists the skull, and this is where we want a gentle release to occur. Breathe deeply for about one minute. Each time you inhale the pressure will slightly increase, and each time you exhale the pressure will slightly decrease. This helps to pump blood and fluid through the opening in your skull, which helps the nerve to function much better. Then turn your head to the left and repeat for the left side. This technique should never be painful: if it ever is painful, then stop doing it.
Give this trigeminal nerve release a try for a few days and see how good your head and neck feels.
We often imagine that our necks as fragile. We think they can be easily hurt. I'm always shocked at how many of my patients express a worry that something in their neck might snap and paralyze them from the neck down. But the reality is that our necks are very strong. In one major ancient tradition, the neck was associated with the Bull, the beast of burden, the carrier of heavy loads. The neck included the muscles of the shoulder girdle, those always tight and irritated neck muscles that run down from the neck onto the shoulder blades. These muscles are the commonly called the 'traps.' They are where we carry heavy burdens. Backpack straps wrap around them. A squat loaded with gargantuan weights rests upon them. The poor 'traps' are beasts or burden, not wimpy little spindles. Our necks are not nearly as fragile as we might think.
Most neck pain isn't purely of physical origin. It is almost always related to the stress of carrying the burdens of one's life. Jesus bearing the cross on his shoulders is a nice image for this. One need not be a Christian to find this image useful. Whenever we have neck pain, we might imagine that the burden we are carrying, the stress of our lives, is what is causing the neck pain. It's useful too to realize that often the burdens that we carry are a necessary part of our lives. It's the cross we must bear.
This isn't to say that we can't also seek some relief, but it's helpful to imagine that the stress we're under is a part of our role in life. The burden sometimes lightens when we see its necessity and its importance. It isn't just random pain, but the burden of the life we live. It's the stress of putting food on the table, getting along with our family, and taking care of our children, all of which is weighing on our shoulders.
This month, an excellent thing that we can all do for our poor burden-bearing necks is Shoulder Circles. Shoulder Circles is a simple movement that helps us to remember our overburdened necks, relieve some of the stress, and improve neck and shoulder mobility. To perform Shoulder Circles simply lift both shoulders toward your ears and then roll them back, then down, then forward, and then upward toward your ears again. Repeat ten times and then reverse the direction. Do this slowly and smoothly, and purposefully keep the size of the circle small. It isn't so much the range of motion as it is the smoothness of the motion that helps. Think of this as a little dance that you can do for your neck. There is often a tingling, releasing feeling that occurs along with this movement. That's the excess burden being lifted from the neck. It has a similar effect to having someone rub your shoulders, which is another good idea.
The next time your neck hurts, reflect on the burdens that you currently carry. Some of those burdens you probably don't need to be carrying, but others are most certainly necessary. Reflect on the necessity of the burdens. Sometimes a stiff neck is just part of being alive. The image at the start of this essay is a painting by the poet William Blake. It can be very useful: a father carrying his child on his shoulders will often end up with a stiff neck, but some of the burdens that our necks carry are necessary, and some may even be enjoyable parts of life.
Dr. Jake Caldwell, DPT
I have a doctorate degree in physical therapy, an advanced certification in Functional Manual Therapy™, a bachelor’s degree in biology, a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a bachelor’s degree in history. I draw from these diverse fields in my approach to working with the body.