Neck rolls are one of the easiest and best exercises you can possibly do for your neck. Learn more by watching the video below.
Last month we talked about the shoulder blades and the chest muscles as one of the major root causes of aches and pains throughout the body. This month we're going to talk about what is an even more important root cause of pains throughout the body: the forgotten "core" of the body: the rib cage.
The rib cage is the central "core" between the neck above, the low back below, and the shoulders on each side. Any problems with the rib cage, any tightness, lack of full motion, or weakness, will force the neck, low back, and shoulders to work too hard. Much neck pain, shoulder pain, and low back pain has its root in the rib cage. It really is the forgotten center of the body.
Michelangelo started his drawings of the human body with the torso, the ribs and upper region of the abdomen, because in his mind it was the torso that dictated the rest of the display of the body. He would often just barely sketch the face and limbs, even leaving them blank many times, in order to ensure his portrayal of the torso was accurate.
In mythology and ancient physiology around the world, the trunk and rib cage carries very significant meaning. The ancient understanding was that the trunk housed our consciousness. Who we think we are, what we might nowadays call "the ego," resides not in our heads, as we imagine it today, but in the rib cage. Ancient Greeks imagined the soul to be in the head (as discussed in an earlier post Your Head Has a Mind of Its Own), but a person's conscious actions and thoughts came out of the rib cage. The ancient Greeks called this region the phrenes, which means lungs. (We get the word schizophrenic from these old ideas. Schizophrenic means split lungs: the consciousness is split.)
In the Old Testament of the Bible, the ruah was the vital breath that makes humans living creatures. It lives in the rib cage. For ancient people around the world, it was the rib cage and the breath inside it that in many ways is the human. It is the breath that made this concept obvious to ancient people. Breathing changes with our emotional state, and it is the breath that comes out through the throat to generate our voice. What a person says is generated from within the rib cage both literally as a mechanical reality, and figuratively in these ancient ways of imagining how the body works.
In the modern world, "knowing" what we know about the anatomy of the body, stuffing our entire existence into the brain, forsaking the rest of the body as dead matter, it isn't surprising that unless one has suffered with rib pain, one is unlikely to have done anything but completely ignore this region of the body. We might even imagine that rib pain is a scream from the ruah, the phrenes, the ribs, or one's own heart, for attention. It wants to be imagined as an important part of your body. It wants you to know that everything you do, say, and even think, comes from deep within its breath. It wants you to know that without its breathing, you'd be gone very quickly from this world.
Breathing is the obvious way to tend to the rib cage. There are various schools of thought on how we should breathe. A singing instructor might tell us to breathe from the diaphragm. A Pilates instructor would tell us use "Pilates' breathing." A yoga instructor may tell us to breathe from the belly. But I think it's extremely foolish to think that we have any real understanding of how breathing affects the body and how to "breathe properly," as if we could consciously breathe in different ways without severely interfering with how the body functions. I spent three years "breathing properly" according to one school of thought and the result was a number of stiff ribs and a habitually poor breathing pattern that took me years to unravel.
A much better option is to spend a few minutes each day breathing in a number of different ways, opening and closing each part of the rib cage. This gives the rib cage some attention and simultaneously doesn't attempt to "fix" the way we breathe. Instead, it gives the rib cage options for breathing, and then trusts the rib cage to breathe how it needs to breathe at any given moment. Let's keep the conscious mind where it belongs: in the rib cage, not thinking about the rib cage.
The following simple breathing exercises can help to get the entire rib cage opened, giving it its full options. Spend 30 seconds (or more) in each of five positions while alternatively breathing deeply into your chest and then deeply into your abdomen. Focus on expanding the chest in three dimensions: forward and backward, upward and downward, and to the right and left. Do the same for the belly when breathing into the belly. The five positions to use are: 1) lying face-up with your knees bent (not shown), 2) in the Cobra pose (left), 3) in the Child's pose (upper right), and 4 and 5) lying twisted on one side and then on the other (lower right).
Try these breathing exercises for a month and see what it does for you neck, low back, and arms.
Tight pectoral muscles (the muscles at the front of the chest) is such a common problem that we should each assume we have tight pecs unless proven otherwise. I've never had a single patient who didn't have at least a moderate amount of tightness in these muscles, and if I don't consistently tend to mine, then they tighten up significantly.
And these tight pecs aren't just a common problem, they are also one of the three major root causes of problems throughout the entire body. Tight pecs pull the shoulder blades forward and disrupt our posture. They are the single biggest factor in most people's postural problems. They round the shoulders forward, and are thus the root cause of many shoulder and arm pains. They pull the neck forward, and are thus the root cause of much neck pain. And they force the low back to compensate into a sway pack position, making them a root cause of many low back problems. It's hard to overstate just how important the pecs are, and just how devastating they can be for the entire body when tight.
It's for these reasons that I'll be focusing a large portion of my upcoming seminar, entitled Unlocking the Body, on the shoulder blades and pecs. They're just too important to ignore.
There are really two pec muscles: the pectoralis major, which is the big bulky thing with which Arnold Schwarzenegger impressed the world; and the pectoralis minor, which is a smaller muscle underneath the bigger pec muscle. It is the small pec minor that is the biggest problem. It's a stabilizer of the shoulder blades and a breathing muscle, connecting the shoulder blades to the rib cage. It often becomes tight and hard, functioning more like a bone than a muscle. It loses the ability to relax in order to allow the shoulder blade to move backwards.
Hardness is a good image for these muscles. We need to think about softening them. Vigorous stretching and assaulting these muscles with a hard massage will not help. In fact, attacking these muscles will often make them harden even more. It's best to think about softening them. We need them to relax.
The best way to relax these muscles is a gentle self-massage followed by the Belly Flopper exercise. Rub the chest muscles gently for about two minutes each. Be gentle! The idea is to relax the muscle, not bruise it. If it doesn't hurt at all and if you're concerned that your wasting your time, then you're probably doing it right. After massaging the muscles, do the Belly Flopper.
The Belly Flopper does two things: it relaxes the chest muscles while simultaneously strengthening the opposing muscles. The relaxation is accomplished by Reciprocal Inhibition, which is just a fancy word for the reflexive relaxation that occurs to muscles when their opposing muscles contract. The Belly Flopper helps to relax the chest muscles while also helping to stabilize the shoulder blades for a more permanent effect on these muscles.
Belly Flopper Instructions: Lie face down with your nose and breastbone flat on the ground. Reach your hands toward your toes as far as your can, lengthening your arms. Then, while still reaching for your toes, pinch your shoulder blades together, hovering your hands above the ground. Hold this position for as long as you can maintain the reaching downward and the pinching together of the shoulder blades. Ideally, hold it for 60 seconds - but that's a long 60 seconds!
Try this simple routine daily this month and see what effects it has on your posture and on any aches and pains in your body. It can make remarkable changes throughout the entire body. Watch especially for more neck, shoulder, and low back comfort and flexibility.
To learn more about how to care for your entire body, register for my seminar on 8/20/2016: Unlocking the Body.
Our arms are how we reach out and interact with the world. The primary purpose of the arms is to position our hands in an exact position. The shoulders gives us the ability to move our hands through a remarkable range of motion. The elbows allow us to telescope the length of our arms to place our hands a specific distance from us. The forearms rotate to allow us to get the angle of our hands right for the task at hand, and then our wrists fine tune this angle. Finally, our palms and fingers open, close, stretch, and contract to form a perfect connection to the outside world. Think about complex this all is! It's remarkable how it all works, and it's incredible that we ever get it right. Although each part of this chain of joints and tissues that make up our arms is important, it is the interconnectedness and the coordination of the event that is most important. But if any one of the links in this chain isn't working well, then the entire arm can't do its job. Each part of the arm is essential.
I explain how to assess each part of the arms in my book Tending the Body. But the part of the arms most frequently in trouble, being restricted, weak, and uncoordinated, is the forearms. Our ability to turn our forearms, which turns the palm upward and downward, is the most likely root cause of arm pain and problems.
To check the motion of your forearms, lie face-up on the ground with your elbow resting comfortably about 45 degrees from your body and with your forearm pointing straight to the sky. Turn your palm downward, away from your shoulder. A supple forearm can turn so that the palm faces directly away from the shoulder. Then turn the palm upward, toward your shoulder. A supple forearm can turn so that the palm faces directly at the shoulder.
If the forearms don't turn, then the stress goes down into the wrist and hand, or up into the elbow, shoulder, and neck (even sometimes into the low back). For this reason, we're going to focus on the forearms this month.
Tight forearms are almost always due to tight muscles in the forearms, and tight muscles in the forearms are either too cold or too dry. At least, that's how Hippocrates (ca 460 BC), the Father of Medicine, would have looked at it. Cold tissues are frozen, unable to move, and dry tissues are hard tissues that refuse to soften to allow motion. Cold tissues need to be warmed, while dry tissues need to be moistened. If your forearms are tight, consider whether they are cold, dry, or a combination of cold and dry:
1) Cold forearms: Cold forearms usually feel cold, or at least don't feel warm to the touch. They can usually move through a reasonable range of motion, but they feel weak and uncoordinated when they do so. To warm forearms that are too cold, you can use exercise or massage. Exercise heats the tissues by pumping blood into them, and massage heats the tissues by rubbing them. Both are useful for overcoming cold forearms. Squeezing a tennis ball is a simple way to exercise and thereby warm the forearms. Massaging the forearms with some oil can be very helpful to add warmth. You don't have to press hard. It's the pressure and movement of the massage that warms the tissues.
2) Dry forearms: Dry forearms usually feel tight when stretched and feel hard when touched. The tissues are stiff. Dry muscles are also easily fatigued. When exercised, they tire quickly. Dry forearms respond best to gentle massage with oil. The oil is moistening and the gentle pressure helps to soften the hard tissues. This is very important: hard massage hardens tissues and soft massage softens tissues. So if your forearms feels hard, then soft massage is best. A word of warning: lots of exercise and long massages are both drying. They will make dry forearms worse. Dry forearms are often caused excessive amounts of exercise. I once dried my forearms out by putting together furniture for eight hours straight. And I have to be constantly careful about drying out my forearms because I used them all day in my work. Doing things weren't not used to doing for excessive amounts of time is the most common way to dry out a tissue.
3) Cold and dry forearms: Cold and dry forearms show a combination of both cold and dry problems: the forearms are both cold and hard to the touch, they are weak and easily fatigued in exercise, and they are stiff and tight when stretched. We need to be a bit careful with forearms that are both cold and dry because exercise is not only heating but also drying. It's fine to do some tennis ball squeezes, but we don't want to tire out the forearms, leaving them even more dry. Short but frequent gentle massage with oil is the key for the cold and dry forearms. The massage will heat the tissues, the oil will moisten the tissues, and the gentle pressure will help to soften the tissues. The difference between our regimen for dry forearms versus cold and dry forearms is that cold and dry forearms should be exercised a bit (but not at all excessively) and should be massaged more frequently to help to keep the tissues warm.
Try tending your forearms this month and see what it does for your arms and your entire body.
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.
In every ancient culture, the head held a special place of meaning. It has always been imagined as the place were something important resides. In the modern world, we imagine our Minds to be located in the head. For the ancient Greeks, it was the Psyche, or Soul, that lived in the head. For the Romans, it was the Genius (which is where we get our word genius). In ancient cultures all over the world, the head is the place of a deeply important part of who we are.
In the Timaeus, Plato says the rest of the body was formed in order to allow our heads to have the ability to move around in the world. To Plato, the head was a model of the cosmos, the perfect shape: a sphere, in which was housed the microcosm, or the little model of the universe that lives within each of us. No matter how you look at it, the head is an important part of the body.
In the ancient way of imagining the body, the head had a mind of its own. A sneeze was the head nodding "yes." The head could say "yes" for us even if we didn't want to say "yes." In some cultures it was even a binding oath if one were to sneeze during a transaction. It meant that one's soul was saying "yes," which carried more weight than anything else. One's head didn't lie.
Blushing was interpreted similarly. Blushing is something that we can't control. The head decides whether it will blush or not. The head betrays our emotions despite us. The word migraine comes to us through French from the ancient Greek meaning half a skull. A migraine headache was imagined as a splitting of one's head. Half one's soul was going one way, and half the other way.
All of this should give us a few more ways to imagine what might be happening when we have headaches or head pain. Any ancient person, and any ancient medical practitioner, would instantly recognize a headache as being connected to something deep inside the person. A headache was a message from one's soul. What that message might be is about as easy to decipher as one's dreams, but just recognizing that there may be more to a headache than the amorphous idea of "stress," or constriction of the arteries, or tension from neck muscles, or a joint dysfunction, can provide some meaning to a headache. Re-imagining pain so that it carries some meaning can go a long way toward alleviating the pain.
This month, spend three minutes each day gently massaging your scalp. When doing so, imagine that you are paying honor to your Genius, which the Romans imagined much as we might imagine a Guardian Angel, a power that walks with us through life and puts us on the right path. And when you find yourself talking about something important to you, do what the Romans did: touch your forehead in honor of your Genius. Or do what the ancient Greeks did: touch your chin in honor of your Psyche. Perhaps by honoring your head in this way, you may find that it has less reason to haunt you with headaches.
Postscript: I know how crazy this all sounds, but reflect for a moment that anyone not born in the modern world would think we moderns to be nuts for not recognizing the importance of the head in one's life, and everyone in their culture would recognize that the plague of headaches in our society is caused by the fact that we don't honor our Geniuses, or Psyches, or Souls, or whatever you want to call it. We may mock ancient ideas, but they would mock us for not knowing such basic things. From an historical perspective, we're the weird ones for thinking the ideas in this essay are weird.
There are many stretches and exercises that one could do to open the feet and make them stronger, but often what they need most is a massage. I'm not talking about a heavy-handed, tissue-tearing kind of massage, but some gentle work to soothe our over-worked and under-appreciated soles.
One thing a massage does for the feet is it warms them. We don't often think about this, but the feet are the farthest parts of our bodies from our hearts. They can easily become too cold and stiff. A gentle massage helps to warm them.
This month, try spending three minutes per day massaging each foot. Massage the heels, the mid-foot, the balls of the feet, and each toe. Use a little oil to do this and put socks on afterward so that you don't track oil all over your house.
See what happens to your entire body by tending your feet. Ankle pain, knee pain, hip pain, and low back pain can all be significantly related to the feet. Massaging the feet can do a lot for those problems. But even problems from higher up, even neck, shoulder, and forearm problems, can all be rooted in the root of the body: the feet.
A good argument can be made that the calves are the most important muscles in the entire body. Without the calf muscles and their Achilles Tendons, we wouldn't be able to stand. The calves help us jump, run, and walk, but even more important is their function as our primary anti-gravity muscles. They are what keep us from falling down all day.
It's no wonder then that our calves and our Achilles Tendons are often extremely tight, and that once we develop a problem in the calves it can be difficult to calm them down. It's because these poor tissues are always working for us that they never really get a break.
Tightness and irritation in the calves affects the entire body. When the calves don't work well, everything else has to work more. Our knees get overloaded. Our low back gets overworked, and even our arms and neck muscles can be affected. Many aches and pains throughout the entire body can result from calf and Achilles Tendon problems.
Certainly, massaging the calves (gently!) and stretching them (gently!) can help. But what they really need isn't more work. What they need is relaxation. The calves need some time off!
One very simple thing we can all do for our calves in order to help give them some time off is to simply lie face-down on the ground (placing pillows under the stomach if the low back is uncomfortable with this), bend one knee, and do very small and very slow ankle pumping motions. This motion moves the foot slightly closer and then slightly farther away from the ground. Spend about a minute doing this, and the repeat on the opposite side. The calves appreciate not having to work hard for a moment, and they appreciate the attention.
We all know that sitting is not the best thing to do all day, and it's even worse for the low back than it is for the rest of the body. Sitting inhibits the low back stabilizing muscles, puts significant force on the low back tissues, and stops the normal flow of fluids through the region of the lower back, causing stagnation and stiffness of the low back. The simple movement below can relieve much of these problems, allowing us all to take better care of our lower backs even while sitting.
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.