Anatomy of the spine - the neck

In the final part of Dawn's anatomy series we take a closer look at the cervical spine and create more mobility in the neck and shoulders.

During this series of articles, we’ve been travelling up the length of our spine, and now we’ve arrived at the neck…

Our neck is where we find the seven cervical vertebrae, with C7 (the seventh cervical vertebra) meeting T1 (the first thoracic vertebra) at the base of the neck. While the bones here may be finer and smaller than in the lumbar and thoracic spine, our neck is still pretty robust.

We’ve largely focused on the physical aspect of our spinal anatomy in this series. The structure is, of course, an important part of the conversation about our bodies. However, the neck is not just a physical connection between the body and the head. It’s also an energetic, or 'mental-emotional' connection between body and mind. This is equally important when it comes to the role that the various areas of our body carry out. What’s more, the interplay between the physical body and the mental-emotional mind is hugely overlooked in our western approach to ‘the body’ and how we look after ourselves. 

Because of the more delicate structure and the energetic body-to-mind connection we can have a tendency to be a little wary of our neck. And in my opinion, that’s often why we’re pretty good at getting stuck here.

As ever though, a little information can go a long way in dispelling any distrust or fear, and of course, the more connection we have with ourselves, the better informed we are…

Let’s take a tour around the cervical spine region

The body’s design is fairly fabulous –  the ‘C’ shape of our cervical spine mirrors the curvature of our lumbar spine (our lower back). The relative mobility of the two will be mirrored too.

Essentially speaking, this means that if we work on enhancing the range of movement in our lower back, our neck range can increase accordingly. Clever hey?

Now, this said, many people find that they’re stiff at the base of their neck – the junction between the 7th cervical (C7) and the first thoracic (T1) vertebrae. If you run your fingers up your spine from between your shoulder blades – the really nobbly and protruding ‘spinous process’ is C7.

Both C6 and C7 can often get quite congested. And as is always the case, when one thing doesn’t move, another will compensate and move more. The same is true here – if C6 and C7 are a bit rigid, it’s likely that the neck will ‘hinge’ higher up at around the C4 level. This can occur for various reasons, including stiffness in the upper thoracic spine. C4 is also the spot that gets a hard time when we adopt the “computer position”. If you work at a desk, you’ll be familiar with this one - your face is drawn towards the computer screen, the back of your neck gets scrunched up, and the head appears almost detached from the body. This detachment is a pretty accurate account of what’s happening energetically too!

The classic computer position shortens the posterior (back) neck muscles, making them tight and, over time, possibly shorter. Accordingly, the anterior (front) neck muscles can become long and weak. And the activity at our anterior neck muscles is connected in a wonderful way to the activity of our abdominal muscles...more on this later.

Sore, crackly neck anyone?!

If you’ve got a sore, stiff, crunchy or crackly neck, then most likely the muscles either side of your cervical vertebrae are in some way 'stuck' and at the crux of the tightness.

I’m referring to the small muscles that sit between each vertebra connecting ‘transverse process’ to ‘transverse process’ (the side ‘wings’ of your vertebrae).

If these muscles are stuck and held in tension, it will cause limited neck mobility, and particularly rotation seems to, ahem, get it in the neck!

Culturally, we’re pretty poor at exercising the range of movement in our necks in the west. Consider for a moment, the Indian head wobble (take a moment to google it if you’re unfamiliar). It’s a wonderful gesture which encourages fabulous free neck mobility. If you happen to try it and start to hear ‘rice crispie’ crackles in your ears, worry not. It is the result of moving into tissues that haven’t made in those fine motor movement for a while.

The neck muscles are not the only limiting factor for the range of movement in our neck. Tension through our upper shoulder muscles (commonly referred to as our ‘upper traps’, or more accurately called the upper fibres of the trapezius muscle, or UFTs) can cause our first rib to elevate which can also cause us restricted neck movements. The first rib is located above the collar bones on either side – yes, it’s that high up – and tense upper shoulder muscles can cause that first rib to get in the way of our neck movements.

Suggested class for EkhartYoga members:

Neck tension release - MacKenzie Miller

This class from MacKenzie Miller is highly recommended if you're looking for a class to help ease tension in your neck and shoulders - it's a 20 minute series of dynamic movements, static stretches and ends with a bit of myofascial release. 

The shoulder muscles and neck mobility

So let’s move on to the shoulder muscles. We could have started here, not least this is where we left the last article, but also because our upper shoulder muscles have such a big impact on our neck mobility.

If, when in Tadasana (mountain posture), we 'release our ears away from our shoulders’, there’s an opportunity for a myriad of things to occur. Firstly, these upper shoulder muscles can go ‘soft and squidgy’ (as they are supposed to be during our day to day activities). With this, our shoulder blades may be able to release down our back and connect with the ribs. We may find that we stand up a little taller. As referred to earlier, the anterior neck muscles are connected to the abdominals. Therefore, when we reposition our shoulders and our head shifts position slightly, we start to activate the 'anterior neck flexors'. Consequently, the connected chain of muscles fire up too, helping us to redistribute the onus of support to our trunk.

When we ‘release our shoulders away from our ears’ we may exhale with the shift of tension from our shoulders. And with the softening, our posterior neck muscles may also find a moment to release. And with free neck muscles, the range of movement of our head can increase giving us more opportunities to express ourselves.

Notice here how we use the words 'release' and 'soften' - not 'pull' or 'draw' when referring to your shoulders in Tadasana. This is deliberate because drawing the shoulders away from the ears too aggressively only leads to further tension - read more in Alignment cues I no longer use by Esther Ekhart.

Back to the breath

We’ve talked about the relationship of the breath with our spinal structure in previous articles in this series, and there will be no surprises to hear that the happy-status of your neck, is also related to the quality and mobility of the breath.

If we remain tense and in a fight or flight pattern of breathing (ie. not our lovely diaphragmatic yoga breathing), we will over-activate the muscles at the top of our lungs – that ‘thoracic outlet’ – and this is when we can recruit those Upper Fibres of Traps (UFTs) in a potentially chronic pattern. In addition, as we get coerced into our computer posture, then stressed, shallow breathing can become our default, neck-aching setting.

That's not all though, if we don’t receive the lower back support from our belly breathing, then the neck and shoulder muscles have to hold on as a support mechanism.

The solution? Don’t reserve your diaphragmatic breathing solely for your yoga classes!

Finding freedom

Regularly and actively repositioning our shoulders to hug our ribs (as in Tadasana above) and thus support our heads better on our spine, is a very powerful exercise in coming back to our centre. As ever though, changing habits can take time…

It takes continued awareness to readjust whenever we find that we’ve slipped off the new posture wagon along with continued compassion towards ourselves for our perfect imperfections!

Mobility in our spine is a wonderful way to better access movement in the rest of our body. Using yoga to enhance the freedom along our spine is such a phenomenal tool for us; don’t underestimate its widespread impact throughout your entire body-mind complex!

Read next:

10 yoga classes for neck pain

Previous articles in Dawn's series

About the author: 

Dawn Meredith-Davies MSc is a holistic physiotherapist, yoga teacher and writer. Having practised yoga for over 15 years, Dawn incorporates this in her clinic work together with hands-on treatment, acupuncture, nutrition and the all-important breath.

When she’s not on the mat, getting outdoors and running is Dawn's mainstay. As a specialist in movement analysis for running, Dawn brings together all of these tools, as well her professional practice, her love of writing and sharing the good stuff at her Living Green Health website to help you run, breathe and live green! 
 

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