Traveling is a pain in the neck. Whether by plane, train, or automobile, long trips are often the source of a sore neck brought on by falling asleep in an awkward position. Case in point, I recently fell asleep on a flight to Houston and awoke with my neck bent forward and my head leaning to the side, resting against the window – a pretty common posture for unconscious air travelers.
The resulting stiff neck had me wishing that my trip had coincided with Dr. Nate’s own recent excursion to Houston to teach the Astro’s training personnel about Graston technique. But not even Chiropractors get to travel with their own Chiropractor, so I was on my own to make it feel better. Another common position many travelers find themselves in!
Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to avoid neck pain when traveling or to relieve it when it does occur.
Sit Back Before You Relax
First, try to hold off falling asleep until you are able to recline your seat. If you’re flying, that means waiting until you’re airborne and the flight crew gives you their blessing. In a car, it means waiting until you’re a passenger – five out of five doctors (including this one) recommend (insist) that you stay upright and wide awake while driving. I’m not real sure about train etiquette, but I’m guessing it will pretty obvious when it’s okay to recline your seat back.
The point is, if you can avoid a rigid upright sleeping posture, you’re much less likely to end up in a head-forward, neck-twisted position that causes so many stiff necks. And yes, travel pillows actually do work to support your head and neck and prevent poor posture as you sleep. Use one.
Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself waking up from your travel nap in an awkward and uncomfortable position with a stiff, sore neck. When that happens, there are a couple of simple stretches you can perform to help work out the kinks. You may get some sideways looks from your fellow travelers, but that’s a small price to pay in order to feel better. I found the following stretches and exercises very helpful:
Levator Scapulae Stretch
The Levator Scapulae are the muscles that run from the top of your shoulder blades all the way up the back of your neck. The job of these muscles is to raise, or elevate, your shoulder blades, or scapulae. (I love it when muscles are named for what they do!)
To stretch your left Levator Scapula, start by reaching over the top of your head and placing your right hand on the left side of your head with your pinky finger near the top of your ear. Now gently pull your head down and to the right. Think about looking into your right hip pocket. To further enhance this stretch, lightly resist the pull of your hand with your neck muscles.
Hold this resistance for six seconds and then relax your neck muscles as you try to pull your head a little further down and to the right. Perform this stretch three times on the left side and then repeat it three times on the right side.
The next stretch I find useful to relieve a stiff neck is chin retractions or the “chicken exercise.” This exercise looks as silly as it sounds, but there’s no better way to get a quick stretch and some fast relief for those tight little muscles at the back of your neck called the Suboccipitals.
To position yourself for this stretch, start by sitting upright. Then create a stable jaw position by pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth, bringing your lips together, and keeping your teeth apart slightly. (Stay with me – it only gets weirder from here.)
Once you’ve obtained that neutral jaw position, pull your jaw straight back into the oh-so-flattering “double-chin position.” Hold this for a few seconds and release. Be sure to just release your chin and not to jut your chin further forward following the release. Repeat the exercise by returning to the double chin position, hold, and release. This is not the most attractive thing you’ll do while traveling, but a few minutes of ugly to avoid a full day of neck pain is definitely worth it. Remember, if you are not getting weird looks from other travelers, you’re probably doing the exercise wrong.
Perform 10-15 of these chin retractions several times throughout the day to keep loose.
If, after performing these stretches, you’re still experiencing persistent neck pain and your trip is planned to last more than a day or two, you may find it worthwhile to seek out a Chiropractor in the area you’re visiting. Feel free to call our office if you’d like a referral – chances are good that we have a colleague or fellow Palmer alum we can point you to.
Otherwise, have a great trip, keep loose, and if you just can’t shake those aches and pains of travel, swing by Team Chiropractic & Rehab in Johnston and let us help you feel your best to Work Hard. Play Harder. Expect More.