New Research on Neck Flexibility and Age

July 7, 2017 in STSMPT

It appears that decreasing flexibility in the neck is common as we pass age 40, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. A study published recently in the peer-review journal Spine gives us new insight into how getting older affects the function of our neck. Physical therapists generally accept that neck range of motion relates to symptoms in the neck and that neck range of motion tends to decrease with age. However, until recently, there was not a lot of firm data or details on that subject. Now we know some specifics that can help people know a little more about what to watch out for and what they should do to preserve their health.

Masaaki Machino, MD and colleagues measured the neck flexibility of 1,230 health volunteers. They found that people generally do not lose the ability to look down. Instead, with age, people start losing the ability to look up. This can increase the chance of painful neck symptoms. Range of motion starts to decrease around age 40, and the difference between people in their 20s and people in their 50s is stark. Anatomically, what they found is that the normal curve in the spine increases with age. Cervical lordosis refers to the way the spine in your neck should curve toward the front of your body. That curve gets exaggerated with age. Authors offer multiple theories as to why the spine would start curving more and people start losing the ability to look up in middle age.

The loss of range of motion may stem from a combination of compressed spinal segments, muscle weakness, and connective tissue shortening. What this really tells us is that people should include their necks in their personal exercise regimen. People constantly stretch their legs, but how often do you see people stretching or strengthening their necks? Add some gentle neck rolls to your stretching routine. Be careful to not lean your head too far back. Do exercises that involve pulling your shoulders back and toward each other, as forward shoulders decrease the range of motion of your neck.

One good exercise for posture, range of motion, and neck strength is posterior translation of the head (sometimes called head retraction). One way to do this is to lie on a bed or bench with your head hanging over the end, facing the floor. Slowly lower your head down, and raise your head up – without rotating your head. Your head should translate, not rotate. To accomplish this, focus your eyes on a spot on the floor, and stare at that spot as you move your head back and forth. If you are rotating your head, you will have to move your eyes to look at the spot. If you are translating your head, your eyes can stay focused on your spot without moving.

If you have neck pain symptoms, neck trauma, or other concerns, it’s often a good idea to have a physical therapist examine your neck and consult on an exercise plan to maximize the safety and effectiveness of your exercise routines.

Reference: Machino M, Yukawa Y, Imagama S, Ito K, Katayama Y, Matsumoto T, Inoue T, Ouchida J, Tomita K, Ishiguro N, Kato F. Age-related and degenerative changes in the osseous anatomy, alignment, and range of motion of the cervical spine: a comparative study of radiographic data from 1016 patients with cervical spondylotic myelopathy and 1230 asymptomatic subjects. Spine. 2016 Mar 1;41(6):476-82.

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