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
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
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
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
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.
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.