Myofascial Release for Neck Pain
Chronic neck pain is prevalent in Western societies, with about 15 percent of women and 10 percent of men suffering from it at any given time. This type of pain results from a number of local conditions affecting the neck and shoulders, such as poor posture, as well as from injury to or compression of the cervical spine and its related structures.
Myofascial Release (MFR) is a form of bodywork that produces a deep healing effect upon the body tissues, eliminates pain, and restores motion. It has been proven to alleviate pain throughout the body, including the neck.
What is Myofascial Pain?
In the word “myofascial,” “myo” refers to muscle and “fascia” is a continuous layer of connective tissue that spreads throughout the body. Fascia is like a three-dimensional web that extends from head to foot and protectively surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel, and organ in the body. A good way to envision fascia is to imagine slicing a grapefruit in half. After removing the fruit from the rind, it is easy to see all of the individual compartments that are left. These translucent walls give shape and definition to the object. Fascia in our bodies acts very similar to these compartment walls.
Fascia in its normal healthy state is relaxed, stretching and moving without restriction. When the neck is impacted by physical trauma, posture, repetitive stress injuries, scarring, and/or inflammation, however, there are cumulative effects. The fascia in the neck and surrounding areas loses its pliability. It becomes tight, restrictive, and a source of tension affecting the entire body. This fascia produces pain or a decreased range of motion (ROM), affects flexibility and stability, and even hinders the ability to cope with strain and stress. Unfortunately myofascial restrictions do not show up in standard testing, so it can be misdiagnosed for a long period of time, thus compounding the issue.
How Does Myofascial Release Help Neck Pain?
Muscles of the neck that are usually targeted for myofascial release include the trapezius and suboccipitals, located along the back of the neck, which help extend the neck; the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and levator scapula, which help provide neck rotation; the longus colli, longus capitis, and infra hyoids, located in the front of the neck, which provide flexion; and the scalenes, which flex the neck to the side.
The myofascial release practitioner will visually observe the client’s body as well as palpate, or feel, the tissue texture and various fascial layers in the neck. The client will be asked to take his/her neck through a range of motion (ROM) in various directions, looking for restriction and pain. Based on this information, treatment will be performed.
A specific myofascial release technique involves the therapist slowly providing therapeutic compression, while having the client move the neck in a slow back and forth motion, thus stretching the targeted muscles. As a result, the fascia is softened and stretched, and trigger points—hyperirritable “knots” in the tissue that send pain elsewhere—will be released. The client will usually experience increased range of motion, increased strength, and improved circulation. This technique can be done by addressing multiple muscles of the neck, and directing the neck through various ranges of motion: chin to chest, right ear to right shoulder, left ear to left shoulder, head at 45 degree angle, and chin pointed down to respective collar bones. The treatment is combined with proper stretching and strengthening of the involved tissues.
Clients may additionally receive education on proper body mechanics; for example, how to maintain the neck as close to a neutral position as possible while sitting, lifting, sleeping, working on the computer, and performing other activities. Special stretches and exercises may be recommended for home practice, along with relaxation techniques. Finally, the therapist may also provide nutritional advice, biofeedback, or counseling.
Is Myofascial Release Safe for Treatment of Neck Pain?
It is important to note that there may be some physical discomfort in the process of releasing long-held adhesions in deep layers of fascia. However, myofascial release appears to be a safe treatment for neck pain if provided by a properly trained practitioner. Practitioners are trained in avoiding areas of caution, such as important veins and arteries.
What Causes Neck Pain?
Nonspecific neck pain typically does not have an underlying cause. Many people who develop a stiff and painful neck will attest to no identifiable reason for it. Although poor posture is one of the most common culprits, sufferers may not recall being in an inappropriate position. However, daily activities such as reading, especially in bed, or sleeping on a pillow that may either be too high or too low can produce neck pain. In today’s computer age, sitting in front of a computer monitor that is either too high or too low can cause neck pain. Additionally, bending over a desk for hours, maintaining poor posture while watching television, carrying unbalanced loads such as heavy purses, or driving with incorrect posture for long periods of time elicit neck pain. Health-care professionals, particularly nurses, often suffer from neck pain due to constant tasks involving reaching, lifting, and pulling.
Neck strain or sprain is the most common type of injury to motor vehicle occupants seen in U.S. emergency rooms—this type of injury is called whiplash. Symptoms include neck stiffness, muscle and ligament injuries, headache, dizziness, shoulder or back pain, and abnormal sensations such as burning or prickling. Other neck trauma can occur as a result of sports and athletics, such as football, gymnastics, wrestling, and ice hockey.
Neck pain usually occurs in the muscles or the ligaments. It is transmitted through nerve endings in the ligaments and muscles of the neck, joints of the vertebrae, and the outer layer of the intervertebral discs. When these structures are irritated, strained, or inflamed, pain is felt in the back of the neck and may spread downward. Other neck pain can occur due to cervical spine injuries, however, these injuries may require more invasive, aggressive methods as opposed to Myofascial Release.
Davies, Clair and Amber Davies. (2001). The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. New Harbinger Publications, Inc: Oakland, CA.
Recovery Enterprises has a site that addresses myofascial pain.
MyofascialRelease.com offers various articles on Myofascial Release.