by Ellen Humphrey, PT, MA, OCS
If you watched the Tour de France and could get past all the beautiful scenery and aggressive elbowing, you may have wondered as I did: how do they hold their heads up for all those miles? What a literal pain in the neck! Indeed it is true. Neck pain is one of the most common complaints reported by cyclists and no surprise when you consider the average human head weighs as much as a ten-pound bowling ball.
Here is the problem: you’re leaning forward on your bike with your heavy head, helmet and glasses all dangling off the end of your neck. It’s a biomechanical engineering feat! Look at pictures of cyclists riding. You will see their bike posture, designed for maximum power and efficiency, puts the spine into approximately 35-40º of forward lean. Now, look at the neck. Self-preservation requires that cyclists spend a good deal of time looking ahead on the road. But as Shakespeare eloquently stated, “ay, there’s the rub!” Studies show lifting the head up so the eyes can see forward requires the neck to bend back into 40-50º of extension. You youngsters might have that kind of flexibility, but most of us over 40 have some neck stiffness, so bending the neck back for long periods of time flat out hurts.
So what can cyclists do to prevent or minimize neck pain?
First, get a professional bike fit. This costs money but it is well worth the investment to be sure your bike fits you correctly and isn’t hurting you. One common problem comes from the rider being too “stretched out”. This makes the spine angles more severe which leads to neck stress. You can get an excellent professional bike fit at Trek in Highland Park. They use a special 3D motion capture system by Retül which looks at dynamic movement while riding the bike for better performance and decreased chance of injury. Call KC Speich at 847.433.8735 to ask about this service.
Second, check your equipment. A helmet worn too low on your forehead requires more head lift to see the road ahead. While you’re at it, check that your sunglasses are appropriate for cycling and don’t obstruct forward vision.
Third, keep your neck and upper back joints flexible. If you are stiff in these joints, the muscles have to work harder to lift your head up. Also, the joints are subjected to much more stress and strain which can lead to early arthritis, aggravation of disc injuries and painful muscle strain. One way to keep your upper back flexible is to roll it on a 6X36” foam roller. Place the roll perpendicular to your spine, lie on your back on top of the roll with the apex of the curve of your spine on the apex of the roll, then relax down into the roll. Remember to breathe. Be careful not to get overzealous because you can bruise your spine. Two to three minutes a few times a day is plenty of time.
Sometimes you can’t get rid of neck pain on your own and need professional help. If that’s your situation, call me at Illinois Bone and Joint Institute in Highland Park (224.476.5550). I have been practicing sports physical therapy for over 30 years and use an eclectic, hands-on approach. I have extensive experience working with cyclists of all levels and even ride myself, so I understand the rigors of the sport.
Above all, have a great ride!