The surprising cause of your neck pain

April 29, 2023 0 Comments

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Many of us spend most of our time hunched over computer screens, scrolling through social media or lying on the couch watching our favorite shows. This sedentary lifestyle combined with historically high levels of stress can lead to a host of physical discomforts, including increased muscle tension in the chest and neck. But did you know that neck pain and tight chest muscles can be closely related?

Tight pectoral muscles can pull the shoulders forward, resulting in a stooped posture, rounded shoulders, and increased curvature of the upper spine (thoracic kyphosis). This can cause the neck to extend forward, creating a forward head position. Since your head is relatively heavy, this can strain the neck muscles, leading to pain and tension.

Anatomy and kinesiology

You might be surprised at how many muscles play a role in helping to keep your head and shoulders in a balanced position and maintain proper posture. The chest muscles (major and minor) and upper back muscles (trapezius, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi, and serratus anterior) connect to the shoulder girdle, which includes the clavicle, scapula, and humerus.

The neck muscles—the levator scapulae, the sternocleidomastoid muscle, and the scalene muscle—also attach to the shoulder girdle and provide support for the head and neck. The muscles of the neck and chest are interconnected at the points of attachment to the sternum and ribs, and they play a crucial role in keeping the head and shoulders in a balanced position and maintaining correct posture.

According to a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, forward head position is associated with neck pain. But people experiencing this forward lean also had a decrease in the activity of the muscles involved in breathing and saw a decrease in the chest.

Another article showed that contracting the pectoralis minor muscle can change the position of your shoulder blades. This, in turn, can affect the posture of the neck and cause neck pain. Research shows that less flexibility in the pectoral muscles can alter the function of the scapula and shoulders, increasing the strain on the neck muscles and contributing to neck pain.

See also: Yoga Anatomy: Use Yoga to Relieve Neck Tension from Slouching

8 yoga poses to stretch your chest

You can correct muscle imbalances in your chest with targeted stretching and strengthening exercises. This is where yoga can play an important role, helping you stretch your chest muscles, increase chest mobility, and improve range of motion in your shoulder girdle and neck.

A man practices Sphinx pose in a white room with two white bookcases behind him.  He is wearing a gray t-shirt and orange shorts.
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

1. Pose of the sphinx

Tight chest muscles can cause other compensatory muscle imbalances that lead to poor control of the scapula (shoulder blade), often contributing to neck pain. Sphinx pose is a good place to start to release this tension, as it gently expands your ribcage and helps train your body to activate the upper back muscles that help stabilize your shoulder blades.

Begin by lying on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders, palms down. Move your arms forward until your forearms are parallel and your elbows are under or slightly in front of your shoulders. Raise your chest by pressing on your forearms. Spread your toes wide and isometrically pull your elbows toward your ribs as you draw your stomach in. Extend through the collarbones. If you tend to tilt your head forward, lower your chin to find more length along the nape of your neck. Experiment with relaxing your chin down to lengthen tight muscles in the back of your head. Drop your shoulder blades down to leave more space between your shoulders and ears. Stay here for 3-5 breaths.

A man in a gray t-shirt and orange shorts practices Salabhasana (locust pose) in a white room with shelves behind him
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

2. Salabhasana (locust pose)

“Upper trapezius dominance” is another compensatory muscle pattern for tight chest muscles. When the upper muscles begin to work, the shoulders rise, which shortens the neck muscles, which leads to pain and discomfort in the neck. To counter this, it can be helpful to practice poses that strengthen the latissimus dorsi.

Begin by lying on your stomach with your forehead on the mat and your arms extended along your body. As you inhale, lift your head, upper back and chest off the mat. Clasp your hands behind your back or hold the belt with both hands. Press your knuckles into the wall behind you and feel your shoulder blades come slightly closer together and drop toward your thighs. Lift your feet off the mat. Lift your chin slightly, keeping some length along the back of your neck. Open your jaw and look ahead. Stay here for 2-3 breaths and then relax. Repeat up to 5 times.

A man in a gray t-shirt and orange shorts practices a back flip.  He is lying on a gray mat.  He is wearing a gray t-shirt and orange shorts.  Behind him are white shelves.
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

3. Lying chest knife

Tension in the pectoral muscles causes the shoulders to round and the head to protrude forward, resulting in neck pain and poor posture. This tool for opening the chest can be selected according to the degree of muscle tension of each person.

From a lying position, with your forehead on the mat, extend your left arm straight out to the side, palm down. Bend your right knee and lift your right leg to the ceiling. Place your right hand near your chest and press into it, slowly rolling to the left side of your chest as you step behind your left knee with your right foot. Keep your left shoulder on the mat and, to stretch the left pectoral muscles more deeply, press a little harder on the right hand. Stay here for 3-5 breathing cycles and repeat on the other side.

A man in a gray t-shirt and orange shorts does yoga: the
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

4. The posture of tightening the thread in the needle

A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine—the middle of the back from the bottom of the neck to the bottom of the ribcage—can cause compensation in the neck, causing your neck to lean forward. The threading pose is a great way to release the cervical and thoracic spine while stretching some of the upper back muscles that can compromise posture. While this pose doesn’t open up the chest in itself, it does provide mobility in the shoulder blades and upper back.

Get on your hands and knees, hips over knees, and shoulders over wrists. Reach your left arm across your chest and under your right arm, palm up. When you reach a comfortable stretch in your left shoulder, drop the side of your head and left shoulder to the floor. Stay here for a few breaths, then switch sides.

A man in a gray shirt and orange shorts practices Pascim Namaskarasana (Reverse Prayer Pose)
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

5. Pascim Namaskarasana (reverse prayer pose)

The reverse prayer brings your shoulders into internal rotation while expanding your chest. If your palms don’t meet, other options include touching your knuckles or holding a belt.

Kneel and sit on your heels (or stand or lunge) with your arms at your sides. Turn your palms to face you, and place your thumbs along your thighs. Bend your elbows and bring your hands behind you. If your palms come together awkwardly, clench your fists and bring your knuckles together or pull the strap between your hands. Stay here for 3-5 breaths, then slowly release your hands and shake your hands.

A man in a gray shirt and orange shorts practices Ustrasana (camel pose).  Behind him is a white wall and white shelves
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

6. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

Camel is an intense chest extension and sag. This variation of the pose keeps your hands behind your back, so you can focus on opening your chest instead of arching your back. It’s still an intense chest opening

Get into a kneeling position. (You can put a folded blanket under your knees for more comfort.) Bring your palms up to your sacrum so that your heels are on top of your buttocks and your fingers are pointing up. If your wrists are clenched, you can make a fist and place the knuckles just above the buttocks. Inhale and slightly pull the shoulder blades and elbows together, pressing the pelvis forward. Feel your breastbone rise and lift your chin up, keeping the length along the sides of your neck. As you breathe into the pose, imagine your lower back staying long and your ribcage expanding. Stay here for 3-5 breaths and release the pose.

A man in a gray t-shirt and orange shorts practices Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank Pose or Upward Pose) on a gray mat.  Behind him is a white wall and shelves
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

7. Purvottanasana (upward or upward plank pose)

The reverse plank is a core-strengthening pose that also creates stability and openness in the front of the shoulders and chest. Press your toes into the ground, but it’s okay if they don’t go there.

Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your hands by your hips, fingers pointing toward the front of the mat. Press into your palms to straighten your elbows and lift your hips. Look up, keeping the length along the neck. As you breathe in, feel the front of your shoulders open. Stay here for 3-5 breaths, then lower your hips to the mat. Repeat up to 5 times.

A man in a gray t-shirt and orange shorts practices Prasarita Padottanasana C (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Variation
(Photo: Ingrid Young)

8. Prasarita Padottanasana S (Bend forward with wide legs), variation

This variation of Prasarita Padottanasana with fingers interlaced behind the back opens the chest to the sky for an extremely juicy pectoral muscle stretch. The full expressiveness of the pose includes a forward bend, which you can try, but to keep the focus on opening the shoulders, stay upright.

Place your feet about 3 feet apart in a wide-legged stance. Interlace your fingers or hold on to a strap, towel or belt behind your back. Lift your heart to the sky, carefully looking up without overextending your neck. If you are holding the strap, bring your hands together as you continue to open the front of your heart. Stay here for 5 breaths.

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