Winter has plowed its way into the Northeast and cold weather wear is out in full force. Heavy scarves around necks, coats with big collars and slouchy beanies hanging off heads is the order of business for frigid days. With all that extra weight at the back of the head and neck, the muscles of the neck are holding on for dear life against the pull of gravity and the dreaded forward head posture.
As the puff and bulk of cold weather wear pushes the head forward, the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) becomes shortened and tight. This ropey muscle of the lateral neck inserts at the mastoid process of the temporal bone, as well as the lateral portion of the superior nuchal line of the occiput. It originates at two separate points – the top of the manubrium for the sternal head and the medial one third of the clavicle for the clavicular head. The SCM cannot do its jobs – rotating the head, laterally flexing the head and bilaterally flexing the neck – when it is stressed in this way, so it must recruit the effort of the typically overtaxed upper fibers of the trapezius, turning the head from the back of the neck and compounding the tension that lives there.
The neck functions best when it works in balance and a counteracting muscle to the SCM is the splenius capitis located at the back of the neck inferior to the trapezius. The muscle shares an attachment with the SCM at the mastoid process and bilaterally extends the neck. When working in concert with the strong balanced action of the SCM, the splenius capitis engagement equalizes the neck and holds the head over the spine, instead of jutting the chin out in front of the body. When working well, this arrangement reminds me of a perfectly balanced teepee, where no single support is overwhelmed, as the poles (or muscles, in this case) share the weight of the structure. But, when out of poise, due to hulking outerwear or technology overload, these muscles become strained, weak, tired and can’t function in the way they are intended to, stressing the neck and upper back.
What is a bundled up, posture-conscious human of the Northeast to do to combat neck pain in winter? YTU, of course! Practicing Blockhead is a terrific way to reeducate the neck into a balanced state, strengthening the muscles needed to align the head over the spine, as well as lengthening the posterior neck muscles. Using Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls to skin roll the whole SCM will loosen tension there and allow the tacked down fascia to ease its grip and let the muscle do its job. The Trapezius Tamer Therapy Ball roll out will ease habitual pressure there and reach deeper to target the splenius capitis, fine tuning the balanced action needed to support the weight of the head over the spine. After practicing these sternocleidomastoid self massage techniques, a mindful triangle pose with an upward gaze can assist in embracing the rotation of the head with the SCM while keeping the back plane of the head aligned with the back plane of the upper body, relishing the poise of the neck. These actions will imprint upon the muscles to hold stability in the neck, even in the face of cold weather wear that crowds that area. Bundle up with YTU intelligence to support functional posture and a healthy, happy winter is sure to follow.