Cure Your Neck Pain Without Drugs Or Surgery!

Chronic Neck Pain — Ouch!

I have some great neck pain exercises, including herniated disk exercises and even TMJ neck pain exercises which, if you do them religiously, will amaze you in their effectiveness. I’ll get to them shortly. But first, a little background on my own story and how I came to discover this “Pain Free” program.

It started several years ago as the vague sensation in my neck that it needed “cracking”. You know what I mean: the way a person’s knuckles sometimes beg to be cracked, there’s a sort of tension in the joints that can only be alleviated by manipulating them. It’s why a trip to the chiropractor usually feels so good, the tension in your spine is released (the “crack” by the way is theorized to be the sudden release of nitrogen from surrounding fluids into the joint, via a process known as “cavitation.”) Anyway, the bones in my neck felt as if they were out of alignment. I also felt tension building in my neck muscles. Turning my head to one side and stretching my neck in the opposite direction usually resulted in a satisfying “snap”, and the tension would be relieved, things would seem to be pulled back into alignment. But as time went on, my neck seemed to require “cracking” more often, and the resulting release seemed to be less and less satisfying.

The tension grew into a burning pain which, finally, wouldn’t go away. For awhile, it was at least tolerable. But since I work as a freelance writer, spending many hours at a computer and keyboard, it wasn’t long before the pain began to affect my work (which, as it turns out, was exacerbating the pain; it was a vicious circle). I couldn’t sleep at night. The only position I could twist myself into for any sort of relief was with my right arm pulled tight behind my neck. After awhile, even that didn’t work.

I was becoming a walking zombie, and my writing had all but ceased. My wife begged me to see a doctor.

The Doctors Might Be Able To Help–Or Might Not

My doctor sent me to a specialist for an MRI, or magnetic resonance image, to take a picture of the inside of my neck. The MRI scanner was loud and frightening (you’re put into a very tight tunnel-like space; a difficult time for people like me who suffer from claustrophobia!). But I managed to survive the ordeal without becoming completely unglued.

A few agonizing days later, I went to my doctor to hear the results. The doctor looked at me grimly. “There are seven vertebrae in your neck,” she said to me, “separated from one another by doughnut-like cushions called disks. Six of your disks are herniated.” The doctor went on to explain that, when the vertebrae are chronically out of alignment, the disks can bulge out of position between the vertebrae. Bulged discs are called “herniated.” Herniated disks are dangerous–and extremely painful–when they press up against the spinal cord, which runs along channels through the vertebrae.

“You have a couple of options,” the doctor said. “We can inject a nerve-block into your neck, which might relieve the pain. We’ll have to do one of those every few months. They are, themselves, quite painful, and there is some risk to them.”

“What’s the other option?” I asked her.

“Surgery,” she said. “We go in and take out the disks and fuse the vertebrae together.” I knew a little about this procedure. It was dangerous–after all, the spinal cord was running through the vertebrae which would be fused! Additionally, since I would be losing most of the disks in my neck, I would have very little flexibility in my neck after the operation. I would also be shorter in height.

“There’s one complicating factor,” the doctor said. “You might not be able to find a surgeon willing to operate on so many vertebrae at one time. You could be looking at several operations over the next several years. And, of course, there’s no guarantee all of this will work.”

The doctor prescribed several medications for pain and sent me home to think about what I wanted to do. I was miserable, and depressed. And in pain.

A Third Option?

I went home and thought about my options, and decided that, doggone it, I wasn’t going to mess with either the nerve block injections or the surgery. Call me stubborn. But what did that leave me? The option of living in excruciating pain for the rest of my life? It didn’t take long to figure out that wasn’t an option either. I was becoming frantic.

And then I remembered a book I had bought a few years earlier when I was suffering from low back pain. It was called Pain Free, and was written by a physical therapist by the name of Pete Egoscue (pronounced e-GOSS-cue). I remembered I had been amazed by the results–I was, indeed, pain free in my lower back after following his simple exercise plan for just a few weeks. But did the book address neck pain? And, more importantly, would his program work for neck pain caused by herniated disks?

I pulled the book from the shelf and dusted it off, then browsed through it for a couple of minutes. Then I ran into this passage:

“In the clinic, the basic treatment we use for stiff necks or neck pain releases the neck from flexion by reengaging the load-bearing joints and posture muscles. Do these [five exercises] in the order presented.”

It seemed too simple. I didn’t have just a stiff neck. What about neck pain from herniated disks? I kept looking. Sure enough, all I had to do was go back a few pages to confirm that, indeed, Mr. Egoscue intended his exercises to alleviate ALL neck pain–and yes, even pain associated with herniated disks:

“The forward flexion of the body, which starts primarily in the hips because we sit so much, reverses the cervical curve [of the neck] from convex to concave. This shift brings the head out of vertical alignment….The disks, meanwhile, are under great stress; the conditions are in place for a stiff neck, neck pain, and damage to the cervical disks.”

I decided to give the routine a try. I certainly had nothing to lose. And if it didn’t work, well, there was always the surgery….

Not An Easy Program

I’m going to cut to the chase here: I followed the program—consisting of five exercises straight from Pain Free, plus an additional three exercises my wife Jeanie found for me while looking through the Egoscue web site–for about sixteen weeks. The bottom line? It worked! My cervical curve, which had become flattened, forcing nearly all of my cervical disks to become herniated, returned to its natural curved shape. The disk herniation was relieved enough to completely eliminate pressure on the spinal cord. And my pain disappeared completely. No spinal nerve block injections. No neck surgery.

I’m tempted to cry Miracle, Miracle! here, but the truth, as I see it, is actually more a matter of common sense: as Pete Egoscue emphasizes time and time again in his book, bones follow muscles. Not the other way around. If you want to realign your bones (as in my case, my cervical vertebrae), the only way to do it is by moving your muscles first. The bones will follow every time. And that is the simple philosophy behind the Egoscue Method of exercise.

But before you rush out and buy the book, there are a couple of caveats (three, actually) you need to be aware of. The first is this: the program is hard. I’m not kidding. Very hard. The exercises, themselves, are simple enough, and are not difficult—if you are not in pain. But since you’re likely to try this program because you are in pain, expect that it will hurt. A lot. You need to be prepared for that. The second caveat is: you’ll need to devote time for the exercises on a consistent basis. The group of eight exercises I performed took me on average about 45-60 minutes per day, every day. You can’t get around it: your body isn’t going to straighten itself out on its own; you’re going to have to be dedicated and diligent. And the third caveat: it’s going to take time. Depending on your degree of flexion, it’s quite possible this exercise program will take several weeks, even months to completely eliminate your pain. And you might as well know this right now: you’ll probably need to follow a maintenance schedule of at least a couple of performances per week, for the rest of your life.

Too much pain? Too much work? I’m not going to judge, I promise. What it all boils down to is what you can commit to. If you don’t have the time in your schedule, or you don’t deal well with protracted pain—and don’t mind losing flexibility in your neck and an inch or so in height–this program might not be for you. But if you want to eliminate your neck pain without surgery or drugs, then this just might be the ticket. And, likely, you’ll be tempted to think you’ve discovered a miracle too.

That said: let’s move on to the exercises. (As was previously stated, do these exercises in the order in which they are listed.)

Static Back Exercise

Static Back Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Static Back Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

This is a great exercise and requires very little effort. Lie on your back with both legs bent 90-degrees at the knee and resting on a block, as illustrated, or on a chair seat. I use a flat coffee table. You can place your hands on the floor, palm up, or rest them on your stomach. All you have to do from this point is let your back settle into the floor on its own, and breathe from your diaphram (belly breathing). Hold this for five to ten minutes.

Gravity Drop Exercise

Gravity Drop Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Gravity Drop Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Wear tennis shoes (for traction), and stand on a stairstep as illustrated, with your heels off the step and hanging midair. Keep your feet parallel with one another, pointed straight ahead, and shoulder-width apart. They should be more than halfway off the step. Keep your knees straight (not bent) and let your weight stretch the posterior muscles of your legs. Hold this position for three minutes.

Static Wall Exercise

Static Wall Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Static Wall Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Lie on your back with your legs straight up against a wall as illustrated, hip-width apart. Get your butt as close to the wall as possible. Tighten your thighs, and point your toes back toward the floor (this will probably hurt a little). Try to keep your upper body relaxed. Hold this position for three to five minutes.

Sitting Floor Exercise

Sitting Floor Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Sitting Floor Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Sit against a wall, as illustrated, with your legs straight out, hip-width apart. Press your butt and your shoulder blades as close to the wall as possible. Tighten your thighs and flex your feet, pointing your toes back toward you. Rest your hands on top of your thighs, palm up. Hold for four to six minutes.

Frog Exercise

Frog Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

Frog Exercise (Courtesy Pete Egoscue)

The final exercise is another of those “feel good” stretches, like the Static Back, that you don’t want to get up from. Lie on your back, as illustrated, with your feet pulled toward your torso and the soles of your feet together. Let your knees turn out, but make sure your feet are centered in the middle of your body. Relax into a comfortable stretch in the inner thighs and groin muscles. Hold for one minute.
More Exercises on Pete’s Website

There is a small bonus-routine of three exercises you can find on Pete Egoscue’s website. Click on the neck pain link in the panel on the left, and follow the on-screen instructions.

Suffer from TMJ? Pete has a routine of eight exercises just for temporomandibular joint disorder, requiring just fifteen minutes each morning. You can get details on Pete’s web site, or in the book, Pain Free, Chapter 11.

In fact, do yourself a favor, and buy the book, Pain Free. It’s cheap, compared to the alternative. And you’ll learn a lot about human anatomy you probably never knew. Then give the exercise routine a shot for a couple of weeks. If you’re diligent and follow the instructions correctly, you should begin to see improvement, a lessening of the pain. Maybe it will be enough to convince you that you can heal your neck pain without surgery or drugs. It was for me.

Fred Hahn, Fitness Prophet…

Being a prophet can be a frustrating experience–especially when the people you’re trying to help don’t seem to be getting your message, no matter how true it is, or how insistently or persistently you might be delivering it. This has certainly been the case for many religious evangelists. The power of a listener’s disbelief, often fueled by the comfortable familiarity of lifelong entrenched convictions, can be a seemingly insurmountable barrier to receptivity. Consequently, they will often turn away from the knowledge they’re being offered, though embracing it would certainly nourish their souls.

Of course, this observation holds true for more secular prophets and evangelists, which include everything from political activists to investment gurus, to garment-district pundits predicting upcoming trends in fall fashion wear. And it has certainly held true for folks like Fred Hahn, a fitness expert whose revolutionary ideas about exercise and nutrition are finally starting to catch on with the American public–but only after years of relentlessly spreading his truth and battling traditional, outdated beliefs about fitness, which, like brain-eating zombies, simply refuse to die.

Fred is the author of two books on changing America’s fitness thinking, most notably “The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution” which he co-wrote back in 2002 with Drs. Mike Eades and Mary Dan Eades, authors of the highly successful “Protein Power Lifeplan” and recognized leaders in the nutrition and fitness reformation slowly taking shape in America today. Slow Burn is a wonderful book. And its central premise–that thirty minutes of strength training a week is the only physical exercise necessary to achieve optimum fitness–is solidly backed by a plethora of scientific studies researched meticulously by Fred and demonstrated repeatedly in his own fitness studio. The book also provides a simple, elegant workout and nutrition program (courtesy of the Drs. Eades) that will bring health and well-being to anyone who gives it an honest go.

If reviews of Fred’s book-and his turn-the-fitness-world-upside-down ideas-are any indication of just how beneficial joining his “fitness revolution” can be, then the decision to get fit the Slow Burn Way should be a no-brainer. But, like most prophets in history, Fred Hahn and many of his forward-thinking compatriots in the health and and fitness industry are still looking to be “recognized in their own land.” Consider this: despite a wealth of new evidence strongly suggesting the low-calorie, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is exactly the wrong way for humans to eat, (take a look at Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories for an enlightening report on nutrition and fitness-related science) people persist in touting its benefits. Equally mystifying is this: despite new evidence that hard and sustained aerobic exercise is not the way to lose weight and keep it off (again, see Taubes, above)–and is, in fact, a leading cause of injury in sports-exercise gurus and even a majority of physical trainers (who should know better) are still recommending increased aerobic exercise to trim the waistline.

Apparently, people can be as resistant to a new way of thinking about their nutrition and fitness habits as they are to a new religious cult.

But Fred is undeterred, methodically putting the word out about his fitness revolution. His second book, entitled Strong Kids Healthy Kids, is due to be released mid-October, and there’s a possible e-book in the works aimed at adapting Slow Burn to folks who live full-time in RVs. He’s making public appearances, even actively writing a blog, which he updates regularly. And nearly every day he takes the stairs down to his narrow below-street-level studio-dubbed, appropriately, the Serious Strength Personal Training Studio–on New York City’s Upper West Side (one of three locations in the area, including one in the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel!)–to continue proselytizing to his steadily growing congregation of converts to the Slow Burn way of thinking, helping them to find their way to the narrow path of righteous fitness.

Still, there are times when Fred wonders why things are taking so long, given the obviousness of his program’s benefits. Here he muses on a recent post to his blog:

“Why does the American Heart Association continue to advocate aerobic exercise when orthopedic injuries caused by such activities dwarf the amount of benefit received?

“If we do have a finite number of heartbeats available to us why would we want to waste them doing daily cardiovascular exercise?

“Why do so many think weight lifting is dangerous for kids yet gladly send them off to football or gymnastics camps?

“Why does the American Diabetes Association advocate the ingestion of blood-sugar raising dietary carbohydrates when doing so requires taking medication to lower it?

“Why does the American Medical Association support the use of statins when ALL of the scientific evidence shows no benefits to taking them and instead shows tremendous detriment? Worse, far worse, why is it that when you educate people as to this fact they fight with you about it?

“Since eating fat and protein is known to be essential for health, why are we being taught that is is bad?

“How come the government food pyramid indicates that most of our daily calories should come from grain based carbohydrates – a food group that is completely non essential to human life?

“If rigorous physical activity is so healthy for us, why are the vast majority of athletes’ careers over at age 30?

“It appears that ethanol (gasoline with added alcohol made from corn or sugar) fuel gunks up the engines of cars. Most engineers agree that this stuff is garbage for the car’s circulatory system and recommend that fuel thinners be used to keep the engines from ceasing up. Might this be true of our circulatory system as well?

“Why did the American Council on Exercise (a leading fitness organization that pledges it’s soul to help educate the gen pop on health and wellness of which I have been a member of for 2 decades) send me 2 letters asking me to let them know about what I do to help the fitness community when I am a bestselling fitness author and the owner of a popular NYC gym?

“Why do we cheer on marathon runners when the activity is so physically detrimental? It would be like cheering on a throng of people trying to see how fast they could smoke 10,000 cigarettes. (If you disagree with this, think about it for more than a second.)

“Explain to me the logic behind an insurance company paying for gastric bypass and not for an exercise program?

“Why do insurance companies ask you if you smoke and what your cholesterol is but not if you are a runner or are vegan?

“Why do we think exercise will cure our obesity when the lack of it is not how we got fat in the first place?

“Why do many women say they don’t want any muscle and then in the next breath say they want to feel tight and toned?

“How come comic book characters and action figures have turned from lean athletic figures into impossibly gigantic muscle monsters? How does this affect a child’s self-perception?

“Why do you need to be 21 to smoke but not to buy a can of Mountain Dew?

“If our normal core body temperature is ~98.6 degrees and 100 degrees is a fever, why are we dictated to warm up before we exercise? I put to you that it is essential to cool down before an exercise program not warm up.”

Fred asks these questions with a thinly-veiled tone of exasperation, evident even in writing. There are things terribly wrong with the way people continue to think about nutrition and fitness, and, frankly, these things anger Fred Hahn.

But then, great people, especially prophets and revolutionaries, are usually angry with the way things are. Maybe that’s what keeps them going. And why we need them so badly.

I’ll talk more about Fred and his Slow Burn Fitness Revolution in later posts. Please come back.