Neck Pain and Callisthenics
Part 1 Neck Pain
Necks are designed beautifully to balance strength, stability and mobility to support many unique functions.
Primarily, the neck needs to support the head's weight in varied positions. The human head weighs approximately 5 kg. Unlike other parts of the spine that have more passive support due to their morphology (e.g. bigger, wider vertebrae, increased vertebral congruence and larger intervertebral discs) or surrounding structures (e.g. the rib cage/ pelvis and organs), the muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle carry a lot of this load particularly when our head is outside of our base of support.
The neck needs to finely control the load of our head to orientate our eyes, ears and nose so we can hear, see and smell optimally. The neck also has a crucial role in our vestibular ocular system that helps us balance and orient in space. This system also coordinates our eye and head movements. Dysfunctions that impact these systems can result in debilitating symptoms such as loss of balance, nausea, dizziness, vertigo, neck and head pain.
The neck also has to protect vulnerable structures such as the throat, blood vessels that supply our brains, spinal cord, and nerves that innervate our arms, trunk, and hands, including the vagus nerve that plays an essential role in autonomic nervous system regulation. These structures can be more susceptible to injury in the neck than in other places due to the large amount of mobility in the neck and lack of surrounding structures.
Like other parts of the body, the neck adapts to the demands that you apply to it. Loading the neck will increase the strength of muscles, intervertebral disks, spinal ligaments, and vertebrae. While it's less common to directly target neck muscles to strengthen them, this can be very helpful and isn't something we need to be overly cautious about. The same training principles apply, but you would start at a lower load than you would for hip strengthening, for example. Fortunately, some neck strengthening is inherent in callisthenics training just by the action of gravity in positions outside of vertical.
Prevalence of Neck Pain:
Neck pain is a common pain presentation. Somewhere between 30-50% of adults will experience neck pain in a year, and about 70% will experience neck pain at some time in their lives. This compares to about 80% lifetime incidence for low back pain. People with neck pain are likely to experience recurrent episodes.
You are more likely to experience neck pain if you are female, live in a high-income country, live in a city, are an office worker and are between 35-45 years of age.
Other risk factors for neck pain include;
Previous episodes of neck pain
History of neck trauma
History of high impact sports Eg football, rugby, wrestling
Manual labourers and health care workers, particularly if job satisfaction is low.
History of multiple chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders etc.
Poor general health, including a sedentary lifestyle and smoking,
Unhelpful coping, including unhelpful thinking styles (e.g. catastrophising, all-or-nothing thinking, negative filtering, emotional Reasoning), avoidance behaviours and alcohol and other drugs missuse
Source of symptoms???
Neck pain does not always mean neck injury. Often neck pain is associated with no or minimal damage.
Most neck pain is considered non-specific. This doesn't mean the pain is not severe or debilitating, but rather no specific pathology can be identified as the cause of the symptoms. This includes sprains, strains and other soft tissue injuries but may not indicate damage at all. Its likely muscle tissue is a source of symptoms for many episodes of acute neck pain due to the variable loading demands of the neck.
A small percentage (about 10 %) of neck pain can be classified as serious spinal pathology. This includes fractures, tumours, cancers, nerve injuries, inflammatory arthritis, infections and vascular pathologies. These presentations need specific treatments. While there is always a helpful dose of movement and exercise, those diagnosed with serious spinal pathology are likely to have specific contraindications or precautions that may impact callisthenic training.
Management of neck pain
If you experience a new episode of neck pain and you are generally in good health, think PEACE & LOVE. What is peace and love?
If you have had a recent trauma (car accident, fall, collision etc), new/ increasing arm weakness, dizziness, double vision, blackouts, difficulty with speech or swallowing, increased clumsiness/ unsteadiness on your feet or have been feeling generally unwell, seek the guidance of a relevant health care professional.
The next post will specifically look at managing neck pain while training callisthenics.