How I Dealt with a Massive Pain the Neck

The information in this post is something I wish I’d read ten years ago…when my neck really started to bother me.  And I mean – REALLY BOTHER ME.

This is a post about how I dealt with the pain of a long term sports injury in my neck through exercise, stretching, strengthening and supplementation.

It all started in high school.  I was playing rugby on the high school rugby team.  Normally, I played wing because at six foot one in height, I was a much better runner than a scrum player.

However, during this one particular game, we’d lost two scrum team mates to injury (that should’ve been a sign of what was to come!) and the coach asked me to sub in for the prop position.  The prop is the name given to one of two players in the rugby scrum who support either side of another player in the middle called the ‘hooker’.

The prop is a very demanding position which puts an incredible amount of stress on your entire body and is best suited to body types that are low, wide and very strong.

If you’ve never seen how the scrum in rugby works – think of it this way, it’s a bunch men tightly gripping each other, bent over in a sort of battling ram position, which is intended to push against the same thing on the opposing team to take control of the rugby ball.

How is that for a visual?  In case that doesn’t work for you – here’s what a scrum looks like and where the props go:

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The rugby scrum is no place for tall slim guys like me. I still have nightmares about scrums!

Anyway, the other team was way stronger and bigger than ours and my neck and head were pushed hard down onto my rib cage and held there for about 10 seconds – enough to permanently damage my spine.

I knew something bad happened immediately.  The pain was unbelievable. It was lucky that I didn’t break my neck.  I was the third player out of that game because of injury.  The pain took months to go away.  I went to chiropractors, who kept adjusting me, over and over.  Not realizing that I had actually crushed the ends of a few vertebrae.

Which vertebrae?  Specifically cervical vertebrae 5, 6 and 7. Often referred to as C5, C6 and C7.

About 5 years later, in university, (no longer playing any contact sports, except with girls) I noticed that my neck was always bothering me.  5 years after that (when I met my wife) …I began to notice tingling in my right hand…which eventually became numbness in parts of my hand.

Couple those symptoms with massive, chronic pain in my neck and you have the ingredients for a debilitating, distracting pain that I used to live with EVERY day.

Here’s what a recent x-ray of my neck looks like, taken from the right side of my head with my head tilted back:

Nice Filings!  Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt

Nice Filings! Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt.

There is NOTHING LIKE CHRONIC SPINE PAIN. Trust me. I know.   For years I ate 400 -1,200 mg of Ibuprofen (Advil) to deal with the pain.  Eventually that did little to help.

So I went to my doctor.  He recommended I see a neurosurgeon.  We took x-rays and did an MRI.  The results were very telling.

The medical terminology for my spine condition is called Cervical Spondylosis – better known as neck osteoarthritis.  This is where the bones in the neck try to fuse themselves together to prevent further injury.

This is another xRay, but with my head held during normal, forward looking posture.  Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae.  The uppers are normal in shape and space, the lowers are quite deformed with very little space in between

This is another xRay of my from the right, but with my head held straight during normal, forward looking posture. Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae. The uppers normal in shape and space, the lower are quite deformed with very little space in between. Those bone spurs push forward into the back of my esophagus and downward onto my brachial nerves.

The neurosurgeon said that surgery is an option if the pain and numbness increase.  This would mean a complete disectomy where the offending vertebrae are fused together.

No thanks.

However, in the meantime, he recommended a couple of very simple actions, which I take almost daily.

The result of these simple actions has been literally miraculous for me.  I no longer need to take any over the counter pain killers. I very rarely feel any pain in my neck – maybe once or twice a month.

And the numbness in my hand has been gone for years.

The reason that I had numbness in my hand was because the facet joints in my neck were compressing the brachial nerves to the point where sensation and strength was diminishing in my entire right arm and hand.  This is commonly known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

He told me that my injury is very similar to what happens to people who are in car crashes and sustain a whiplash injury.

The neurosurgeon recommended some physiotherapy and to stay away from chiropractic treatments because stretching and strengthening the muscles in my neck is more important that having it adjusted.

I took my x-rays to physio, who had seen many of this type of neck injury.  My physio showed me one exercise, which I do almost daily, that has been very helpful.

Very simply, I lay on my back with a bath towel rolled up and placed under my neck.  Then I perform what I call my ‘chin tucks’.  I then perform ten to twenty repetitions of tucking my chin down firmly towards my chest.

The difference for me between the chin tuck that you might do say, at Pilates, or in posture classes, is the TOWEL UNDER my neck.

The KEY with this exercise is NOT to lift your head by engaging the sternocleidomastoid muscles;

sternocleidomastoideus -  - I call these the "model muscle" because you always see this muscle prominently in photos of models when their heads are turned to the side.  It is NOT what you want to use for the "chin tuck" execise.

sternocleidomastoideus

but rather to use the core muscles of your neck, such as the Longus Colli to do the pulling;

longus colli

longus colli

This one exercise helps to keep the natural curve in my neck, which Cervical Spondylosis will eventually eliminate.  If you look at my X-Ray, you will see that my neck does not have a natural curve to it.  In fact, it is actually quite straight up and down.

This is NOT how the neck is supposed to look.

Because of my injury, I have lost the natural ‘lordosis’, or curve.  This exercise, helps to both strengthen my neck muscles and fight the effects of neck osteoarthritis.

Here is what a normal spine should look like:

Normal Cervical Spine

Normal Cervical Spine - Note the Curve and the Square Vertebrae

I have also invested in a neck traction device, which I will admit is very Draconian in its application.  It looks like one of those Medieval torture devices that was used to stretch people until their head pops off.

You fill up a weight with water…I usually use the whole back, about twenty five pounds.  This goes over a pulley, which attaches to a rope on a door, which attaches to a brace that straps around your head and chin.

You then sit in a chair with this pulling your head up (and thus releasing pressure on your spinal column) for as long as you want.

Great horror movie stuff.

Click here to see what this bizarre thing looks like.

I use it when I feel my neck getting a little stiff, which is very rarely now.

In terms of supplements, I find that Fish Oil does a terrific job of taking my pain away. There is something in fish oil, so my doctor tells me, that does a very good job of managing inflammation in the body.  I use the Ascenta brand here in Canada.

I also wrote about this product in my post about managing depression.

Lastly, I find that cardio exercise does a great job of eliminating the pain.  Hiking, biking or stationary equipment all do the trick for me.  I need about 35 minutes or more with my heart rate at 120 beats per minutes for the duration.

The effects of cardio exercise alone I’ve found can eliminate my pain for up to 4 hours… .

Of all the injuries that one can sustain, I’d have to imagine that anything to do with the spine is one of the worst and I think that I’m managing mine very well.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Keep yourself and your kids out of contact sports, especially where very strong men, bent over, are involved!

1 Comment

  1. kelly

    I just read your article and it is very interesting, not sure if it what i just found out i have but seems the same , i had a extra that states my spine in neck area has no spaces between them? i have massive pain , and have to go to a specialist? i am searching for any help?
    if you feel this is similiar could you write back t