Why You Have A Stiff Neck And Tight Lower Back
The most common complaints you will hear from people regarding their bodies are that they are suffering with a stiff neck, tight lower back and/or tight hip flexors. An alarmingly common diagnosis passed onto us by people just starting out is that they have been told they have ‘inactive’ glutes and/or weak abs. So why so many commonalities across our bodies?
Stretching/mobility is an area of fitness that pretty much everyone knows they need. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are doing anywhere near enough about it. More importantly, do we actually know what the problem is so we can be confident the stretches and corrective exercises are making things better and not worse!
Many years ago, Dr Vladmir Janda summarised which muscles tend to shorten when tired (or older) and which tend to weaken under stress (or age). Most people will empathise that the following list mirrors the situation with their own bodies.
TONIC MUSCLES (Get tighter)
– Upper traps
– Pec Major
– Pec Minor
PHASIC MUSCLES (Get weaker)
– Mid Back
– Glute Max
– External Obliques
He refered to this as Crossed syndrome. And can be viewed in terms of the upper or lower body. Upper crossed syndrome presents as increased thoracic kyphosis (hunched back), rounded shoulders and a forward head. Lower crossed presents as anterior pelvic tilt and increased lumbar lordosis (arched low-back). While some support the thought that these postures will result in pain, the research remains controversial. On the other hand, evidence does support that specific muscle imbalances accompany these postures, which may result in pain because of poor movement quality and overuse.
Upper Crossed Syndrome
With upper crossed syndrome the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and chest have become deformed. Specifically, the back muscles of the neck and shoulders (upper trapezius, and levator scapula) become extremely overactive and strained. Most of us will feel this as a ‘stiff neck’. The muscles in the front of the chest (the major and minor pectoralis muscles) become shortened and tight. As a result of these overactive muscles, the surrounding counter muscles become underused and weakened. In upper crossed syndrome, this causes weak muscles in the front of the neck (cervical flexor muscles) and in the lower shoulders (rhomboid and lower trapezius muscles).
Lower Crossed Syndrome
Lower crossed syndrome is the result of muscle strength imbalances in the lower segment. These imbalances can occur when muscles are constantly shortened or lengthened in relation to each other. The lower crossed syndrome is characterized by specific patterns of muscle weakness and tightness that cross between the front and back of the body. In Lower Crossed Syndrome there is over-activity and hence tightness of hip flexors and lumbar extensors (Lower Back). Most of us will feel this as a ‘tight lower back’. Along with this there is under-activity and weakness of the deep abdominal muscles on the front and of the gluteus maximus and medius on the back. The hamstrings are frequently found to be tight in this syndrome as well. This imbalance results in an anterior tilt of the pelvis, increased flexion of the hips, and a compensatory hyperlordosis in the lumbar spine.
Why Is This Happening?
It isn’t difficult to see why so many people are suffering with these syndromes. You only have to take a look at the lifestyle of the average person to see that most cases develop through poor posture. Specifically, sitting with the head forward for prolonged periods. Using a computer, driving, watching TV, browsing a mobile phone, reading, biking etc are all causes of both lower and upper crossed syndromes.
Look at all those activities, these days we are generally sat down, with shortened hip flexors and our glutes and abs switched off. While we are seated we are hunched forward, with our upper back muscles lengthened, shortened pecs and an inactive mid back.
How Do I Fix It?
Prevention is better than the cure, so the first thing we need to do is limit the amount of time we spend doing the aforementioned activities (unless we can maintain good posture while doing them). The treatment for crossed syndromes is via the strengthening of weak muscles, stretching of tight muscles and a focus on postural changes. A tight muscle should be stretched efficiently and in doing so, the stretching of tight muscles results in improved strength of inhibited antagonistic muscles.
This may involve purely soft tissue approaches, stretching the specific muscle for duration’s of around 30-60 seconds. A five week active stretching program significantly increases active and passive ranges of motion. During this program time should be spent performing strengthening exercises on weak muscles. Focusing on good posture will act as a corrective in itself, because you can’t maintain a great posture without activating your muscles in the correct way.
If you are currently living a sedentary lifestyle and you aren’t getting any exercise, simply starting to move your body through the ranges of motion it was designed for will have a profound impact on your body. If you don’t know where to begin, check out our blog post What Do You Really Need To Get Fit which identifies all the movements you should be focusing on to get going as a beginner, even if you have no equipment.
So now we have identified the reasons for your stiff neck and tight lower back you can be more aware. You can recognise when you are putting your body in positions which will contribute to this and hopefully make positive corrections throughout the day. Combine that knowledge with some corrective stretching and strengthening and you can start to see some pretty fast relief from your symptoms. It just takes commitment and dedication just like anything else in life!
We hope you found some value in this post and as always we would love to hear your comments and opinions below. Are you suffering from a stiff neck, tight lower back or tight hips as a result of your lifestyle?