Why It's Important To Prioritize Neck Health + 4 Ways To Help At Home

Board-certified physician By Shadi Vahdat, M.D.
Board-certified physician
Dr. Shadi Vahdat is a practicing physician, who specializes in integrative medicine. She completed a fellowship in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture at UCLA East West Medicine and Helms Medical Institute, and has completed yoga teacher training, breathwork meditation training, and certification in functional medicine from Institute of Functional Medicine.
Unrecognizable Woman with Hands on Her Head

Many years after I finished my medical training to become a physician, I spent time at a renowned clinic where I learned about traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and acupressure, and began to incorporate these centuries-old teachings into my practice. 

As I learned new ways to treat tension and pain, I was especially amazed at the ways I was learning to treat patients' necks. I saw this body part's remarkable connection to a wide range of ailments—from thyroid inflammation to migraines and tension headaches, digestion issues, shoulder pain, tinnitus, and even hearing loss. Through my work in integrative medicine, I began to see the neck in a whole new way: as a control center for the entire body. 

Why your neck is the key to whole-body health.

Many of us are taught to consider our heart health and know that we should eat less red meat and work out to keep our ticker happy. However, very few of us have spent much time thinking about our neck health. That's a shame, because the truth is, your neck is home to many important structures in your body's system, including your spinal cord, thyroid, the vagus nerve, and more.

The vagus nerve is one of the master nerves that control many functions in the body, and it exits your brain at the base of your skull and travels down through the neck. This nerve affects a wide range of bodily functions, including your heart rate and blood pressure, breathing, liver function, digestion, hunger, mood and mental health, and immune system. So there are a huge number of issues that can occur if your vagus nerve malfunctions.

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Trauma can take a toll on your neck.

Most people only consider neck health after experiencing a major trauma—after all, incidents like car accidents can seriously damage your spinal cord and neck. But what you may not be aware of is that while most doctors frequently address the pain associated with a recent accident, they don't always consider the long-term disabilities that can arise as a result. Even 17 years after a car accident, 55% of people continue to report persistent neck pain.

Whiplash associated disorders from car accidents, sports accidents, or assaults can lead to a whole host of serious issues—and they're not just limited to head and neck pain. These issues can include everything from tingling in the arms to fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, memory loss, and insomnia. Studies have even linked a greater chance of thyroid problems after neck trauma and motor vehicle accidents

Seemingly little things can seriously affect your neck.

Big traumatic events aren't the only things that can negatively affect your neck health. Much smaller issues, such as poor posture and repetitive stress to your neck muscles, have been linked to muscle pain, as well as what's known as "trigger point" development.  

These trigger points are simply bands of muscle tightness that not only cause pain patterns but also contribute to inflammation and reduced blood and oxygen flow, which can have lasting health effects. As it turns out, inflamed muscle bands can be a root cause of conditions like migraines, tension headaches, and TMJ disorders that are often perceived as difficult to treat and are frequently misunderstood by Western medicine.

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What you can do to take great care of your neck.

Many adults—some experts say up to 71%—experience neck pain. The frequency and severity of your neck pain can be linked to a number of factors, some of which are totally beyond control—for instance, women, unfortunately, tend to suffer more from neck pain than men do, laborers who do repetitive motions for their jobs than those who engage in more varied tasks, and older people are typically more at risk than younger ones. However, there are some ways to care for your neck and proactively keep this important part of your body as healthy as possible:

1. Stretch it out.

Take regular mini-breaks during your workday to stretch your neck and shoulder muscles. Certain yoga poses can be great for improving flexibility as well, which can keep the neck and shoulder area limber.

A bonus of stretching and doing yoga is that these activities can also lower stress levels, which is important for your neck health, too. It's also a great idea to incorporate activities that stimulate the vagus nerve, such as breathing exercises, meditation, singing, gargling, and laughing. Yup, watching your favorite comedy is actually great for your neck health—you're welcome. 

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2. Swap out some habits.

It turns out that sitting up straight isn't just something your mom wanted you to do for no reason: Poor posture can be a major contributing factor to chronic neck pain. Also, carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder asymmetrically puts pressure on one side of your body—so consider carrying a backpack that divides the weight equally on both shoulders.

What's more, if you're a smoker, in addition to the host of problems that can stem from this choice, it can negatively affect your neck health.

3. Be mindful.

Make sure you are mindful of your home or office ergonomics. It may seem like an unimportant thing to invest in, but there's really nothing more critical than your health this way. If your work involves you hunched over a computer all day, opt for a good ergonomic chair, and use a hot pad to relax your neck muscles at the end of the day.

And when you're exercising, be careful to use very good form—when lifting heavy weights or doing certain yoga poses, you may inadvertently create strain on the neck or shoulder area. 

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4. Gift yourself a massage.

This is the best prescription from a doctor ever, right? Honestly, I believe that regular massage can be a hugely important part of your preventive medicine routine. I know that this may be difficult for many of us to achieve during the pandemic, so learning to be your own massage therapist through acupressure can be a great tool for alleviating those tight, tender spots. 

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