Your upper half has been slowly descending towards your screen. Have you eaten? Have you moved? By the time you remember you have a body and decide to take a break, you’re rubbing the back of your neck or your shoulders and complaining, "my muscles are so tight!" Or perhaps you've noticed that you're having headaches more often and a nagging pain at the base of your skull.
Unfortunately, this experience is quite common. You may have heard of the terms 'tech neck' or 'nerd neck.' These are conditions where the body has been inclined towards a forward head posture due to the many activities of modern-day living, such as computer and cell phone use. This unhealthy posture curls the body forward, contributing to rounded shoulders, back of the neck pain, shoulder pain, stiff neck, jaw pain, tension headaches, and migraines.
This article will explain how muscle tension in a few key muscles contributes to your pain and show how direct, prolonged pressure to specific areas is the best way to get relief.
Why are My Back of the Neck Muscles so Tight?
That's a great question! But, before we get into what is causing your tight muscles, let's get an understanding of what 'tight' actually means. Having an accurate understanding of what it means when a muscle is tight will ensure that everyone is on the same page and help you correctly identify the root of your problem and the proper solution.
What is 'Tight' Anyway?
Sometimes, when a person refers to a muscle as tight, they mean that it is 'sore' or that they feel a normal stretching sensation when the muscle is being used. Or a person might feel pain or pinching in some muscle and refer to the muscle as tight. Although sometimes a tight muscle can cause pain, in these situations mentioned, 'tight' is most likely not an accurate definition of what’s occurring.
There are two situations that more accurately describe a muscle being tight:
- Lack of Motion – When there is a lack of motion in a muscle, the tissue will not fully extend. Say you bend down to touch your toes, and your hands can't make contact with the floor because the muscle in the back of your legs doesn't fully extend; that muscle can be correctly called 'tight.'
- Tension – Also, if a muscle is holding tension, you might feel a knot when you touch it because the muscle is contracted. When a muscle is not in use, it should feel soft, not hard. In this case, it can also be correctly referred to as 'tight.'
It is important to know which type of tight muscle you have, because the solution is different for each. If you want more motion, you do stretches to elongate the muscle to increase the range of motion. If you have tension, you need pressure. However, your muscle might be motion tight because a muscle knot is impeding its ability. You can use tools such as a massage ball, Hip Hook, or the Nuckle to release tension and train your brain to break the pattern of holding tension in the muscle (more on that a little later).
Knot My Problem
Actually, muscle knots are a problem for many people. And if you have pain in the back of your neck, a muscle knot may be the culprit. Let's discuss what a muscle knot is, what causes it, and the impact it can have on your body.
What is a Muscle Knot?
You will know if you have a knot in your muscle because, at rest, the spot will feel hard and dense, unlike a healthy relaxed muscle that is soft and supple. This knotted area of tissue can be created due to several factors. But, for the most part, it is made when the muscle becomes contracted (or stays in an active state) for some reason.
As a part of the body's (brain's) protective mechanism, muscles sometimes remain engaged, resulting in a knot. It’s as though a switch was turned on, and then the operator went out to lunch. You’re not actively using the muscle, but it’s still in a contracted state. These muscles need a reminder of how to “turn off”.
What Causes Muscle Knots?
There are three main reasons why muscle knots happen: (1) the muscle is being overused and gets stuck in active mode, (2) the muscle is shortened for an extended period, (3) stress/trauma.
In today's society, we perform many actions that have our muscles in static positions for prolonged periods – think using the computer with arms outstretched forward, looking down at a cellphone, driving, or simply sitting in a chair all day. These activities can cause our necks to be stretched forward or down and our shoulders to be rounded.
Muscles do not like to be in a shortened or lengthened state for extended periods. So when a muscle is in a shortened position for a long time, and you try to get it to work hard, it might cramp or form a knot. Ever have pain when you stand up after sitting?
Also, suppose you are dealing with stress or emotional or physical trauma. In these cases, the brain will attempt to preserve your vital organs, including the brain, by forming 'protective' knots in the areas closest to the brain (neck/shoulders) and the abdominal cavity (back/hips/chest). This principle also applies to trauma from an accident or surgery, where muscle knots can form to protect the traumatized area.
Effects of Muscle Knots
When a muscle is compressed, it cuts off the nutrients delivered to the muscle because it constricts the blood flow. This action is detrimental to the health of the overall muscle function as it reduces its ability to repair itself and interferes with the processes that remove toxins. This, in turn, creates a negative cycle that encourages the muscle to remain in a contracted state.
The Core Issues
Now that we have the basics covered, let's get down to the mechanics of why you may be experiencing tight muscles in the back of your neck and what you can do about it.
Primary and Secondary Core
As mentioned previously, our daily lives have us hunched over computers and other electronic devices that interfere with our bodies' alignment. Many are aware of the body's core, or primary core, which encompasses the abdominal cavity, lower back, and hip area, including the importance of keeping the core strong. Having a healthy primary core ensures you have robust nervous system function and proper alignment of the spine and hips.
But did you also know there is a secondary core that is vital to overall health? This secondary core comprises the brain, head, neck, pecs, and shoulders. Sometimes when you are dealing with stress, tension is created in the pec minor muscle. This tension can pull your entire body forward, including your neck and shoulders, misaligning your core, causing pain at the base of the skull. When you have tension in the secondary core, it blocks tension from being released in other parts of the body.
Rooting Out Tension
So, what can you do to get relief from your pain? You must release the tension in the pec minor and the base of the skull. Releasing the tension in the pec minor will allow your shoulder to relax back. Releasing the tension at the base of the skull will allow your head to be aligned with your spine. This takes the stress from the muscles and lets your bones do the work. When everything is aligned, your muscles can relax, your shoulder blades can relax, and you can experience free range of motion in the shoulder and neck. And when the nerves and the brain stem are not being pulled on, and the muscles are relaxed, your body is in a position that does not result in nerves being pinched in the spine. This restorative state allows the muscle pain that could be contributing to your neck pain to resolve.
How to Relieve Pain at the Base of the Skull
The technique you use to relieve your pain makes all the difference in whether you will get lasting results or a temporary fix. There are three main methods that people try on the muscle when seeking to get rid of pain at the base of the skull: stretching, rubbing, or applying pressure.
Stretching, Rubbing, or Pressure - And the Winner Is?
We all have muscle tension from time to time for various reasons. Suppose your muscle is at rest and is holding tension. In that case, there is one method that has proven to be superior in providing relief.
- Stretching – When you stretch a muscle, you take it from its resting place and allow it to get longer. The brain enables the muscle to stretch longer if it feels it is safe to do so. Stretching is good for training the brain to allow you to use your full range of motion, increasing circulation, and telling the muscle how to repair itself after exercise. However, if a muscle is holding tension (contracted), stretching might release it somewhat, but when you revert to a resting state, the tightness is still there.
- Rubbing – If you rub a muscle that is holding tension, it may relax a bit because you're increasing the muscle's flexibility. You're also increasing circulation, but after some time, it will revert to being tight again. Rubbing or massage may feel good, especially if the muscle is tight/sore, and it does have some benefit, but it doesn't teach the muscle to relax.
- Pressure – The BEST way to get muscles to relax is by applying prolonged pressure. Initially, using pressure will cause pain as the muscle is sore. However, after a brief period of applied pressure, the muscle will start to relax and lead to long-term relief. When seeking to relieve tension at the base of the skull, focus pressure on the suboccipitals (a group of muscles in front of the occipital bone) for a prolonged period of at least 30 – 90 seconds.
Tight Chest Muscles and Rounded Shoulders Can Cause Neck Pain
Another cause of neck pain could be a muscle knot in your upper trap. But before you go pressing or rubbing the area, you must address the root cause, which is the pec minor and muscles at the base of the skull. These muscles, which are connected to the spine, underneath the upper traps, must be released first.
So, you may be thinking, "but I have neck pain, why do I need to fix the muscles in my chest or at the base of my skull?" Remember what we learned about the secondary core and how tension can be created in this area by pulling on the brain stem and causing pinched nerves? To relieve the pain in your neck, you must align your body by releasing these muscles first.
Easy on the Trigger
It may seem strange that you have a pain in your neck that warrants releasing tension in the chest. But some muscle knots are triggers. This means that you can press a specific spot and feel pain somewhere else. For example, you might press in your shoulder area and feel pain in your neck. In this case, the issue is not really with your neck; it's with the muscles in the shoulder.
In general, stretching is useful for muscle health. It helps to increase circulation and make the muscles more pliable. However, when it comes to muscle knots, it does not provide sustained relief. You will still need to apply prolonged pressure to the muscle to alleviate your pain and teach the brain to break the pattern of holding tension in the muscle. Read more about 'Why Chest Stretches Aren't Enough.
Neck Stretches for Pain
Similarly, doing stretches to soothe pain in your neck is not effective either. Again, this method may provide temporary relief, but the muscle will revert to its contracted state, causing pain. Check out this article to learn more about 'Why Neck Stretches Aren't Enough: The 4 Muscles That Matter.'
Your Rotated Pelvis May be Causing Neck and Shoulder Pain
As you can see, there can be multiple factors that contribute to your neck and shoulder pain, even misalignment of your pelvis! If you've heard that little tune – "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone…" it is not only true that the bones are connected, but because they are connected, the muscles that support them all affect one another.
Get in Line
A rotated pelvis may be caused by tight hip flexors (primary core). This rotated pelvis shifts the position of the hip, changing the way the ball fits into the hip socket. This, in turn, changes the trajectory of the leg and the position of the spine. Once this occurs, the nerves can become irritated, and pain can work its way up the spine to the neck and shoulders (secondary core).
How to Relax Tight Neck and Shoulder Muscles
As previously mentioned, massaging and stretching are helpful techniques, especially for improving blood flow to the muscle. But the best method for releasing tension in your tight neck and shoulder muscles is through direct, prolonged pressure. Specifically, this approach involves applying sustained pressure without movement.
The essential takeaway is that prolonged pressure is the best way to relieve muscle tension. However, to fully leverage this method on your own, you need a tool to provide specific angular pressure to reach and release these spots. And because you need to apply prolonged pressure, you want something that isn't going to slide or roll, that can handle pressure, adapt to your body, and isolate these small yet mighty muscles. We recommend the Nuckle; a PT designed it to release, relax, and realign the neck and shoulders. With three widths and six angles, it can adjust to every body type and apply clinically effective, specific pressure to relax tight muscles and reduce pain.
FAQs about Tech Neck and Forward Head Posture
Why is the back of the neck tight?
When the shoulders round or hunch forward, the whole body adjusts to try and stay upright. Your chin juts forward and head tilts up, shortening and tightening the muscles at the base of your skull.
How do I fix nerd neck?
Tension in the subocciptal muscles (base of the skull) and pec minor muscles (chest) are at the root of nerd neck. Applying prolonged pressure for at least 30 – 90 seconds to these muscles will help to train the brain to release the tension. As a result, the muscles will relax, the nerves will calm, and the body will realign.
How to correct forward head posture?
To fix forward head posture, releasing tension in the pec minor muscles and muscles at the base of the skull by using a tool (or a practitioner’s hands) to apply direct, prolonged pressure to these muscles.