Your Body’s Bottleneck – How Your Neck Affects Your Health

You know that your heart, organs and lungs are critical for your health. But your neck?!

In fact, the neck is a delicate part of the body, and when neck health is compromised, it can affect you in many ways. And when it comes to neck health—as always, an ounce of prevention is worth an pound of cure.

The neck is comprised of seven vertebrae making up the uppermost portion of the spine—the cervical spine. It provides protection for the many nerves travelling down from the brain, and It also houses the eight cervical nerves, which have their origin at the seven cervical vertebrae. If the neck is in alignment, these nerves can properly serve their functions, but if the neck is out of alignment, the risk for nerve impingement or compression increases.

The neck is made to move, and thus can temporarily lengthen or compress the various structures in the area, but if poor postural habits become permanent, it often causes problems. Pinched nerves in the neck can not only cause pain on site, but also cause pain to radiate out into other areas of the body where those nerves send signals to.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, originating at the base of the brain stem, and traveling down along the spine to the abdomen. It is involved in managing parasympathetic/sympathetic balance in the autonomic nervous system, and it innervates and regulates almost all of the organs in the body.

Its numerous important functions include aiding in decreasing inflammation in the body, regulating the muscle movement necessary for the body to breathe, and regulating the fight or flight instinct. If muscles or tendons in the neck get too tight, or the cervical spine is out of alignment, this can impede upon the nerve and diminish its functioning. This is just one example of the delicate balance in the body that is significantly affected by the positioning of and health of the neck.

Neck problems generally originate from poor posture and/or chronic tension in the neck muscles. A postural problem that’s becoming increasingly prevalent today is forward head posture, or colloquially, text neck. In addition to excessive time crouching on the phone or computer, this condition can be caused by sleeping on too high of a pillow, reading for long periods of time, or any activity in which the gaze, and the head, are drawn forward and down. Over time forward head posture can cause permanent misalignment in the rest of the spine, and it may also lead to pinched nerves in the neck, or excess wear and tear on the intervertebral discs. Forward head posture is also frequently accompanied by thoracic kyphosis, which depresses the chest and often limits the capacity to breathe deeply and fully.

Chronic tension in the neck muscles has also been linked to tension-type headaches. Accounting for nearly 90% of headaches, tension-type headaches are set on by over-tightened muscles in the back of the neck and scalp. Those can be brought on by anything from lack of sleep, to poor posture, as well as general stress and holding in the neck area.

While everybody is different, neck-related issues can often be prevented by simply taking better care of your neck. This involves moving and stretching it on a regular basis. In addition, simple changes in posture often go a long way to rebalance the cervical spine, and improve the overall health of your neck.

Yoga can be a powerful tool for improving the posture by cultivating body awareness, and strengthening the muscles that hold us in good posture. It’s also an effective stress reliever, and can help to relax chronically tight muscles that may cause pain.

Long hours of sitting is bad for your neck and your body. To find ways to break it up, see our article on 6 Yoga Poses to Counteract the Effects of Sitting.

If you or your yoga students struggle with neck and shoulder pain, also be sure to check out our course with Carol Krucoff on Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain