Neck muscles protect the cervical spine


The cervical spine – not only is it the most mobile part of the spine, it’s also extremely vulnerable. This balancing act requires the most complex work from the neck muscles, as they protect us from external life-threat­en­ing forces. However, this also means that they’re often tense.

Anatomy of the cervical spine

The anatomy of the cervical spine is quite distinctive. At first glance, it doesn’t look very different from the other sections of the spine. Muscles and ligaments surround and stabilise it. So far, so good. What’s distinctive, however, is its extreme mobility. The shape of the seven cervical vertebrae allows the neck to move in all directions. The only thing it can’t do is turn backwards – at least not normally.

What does the neck have to carry?

The answer to this seems relatively simple at first: around 5 kg of head weight. This weight rests on the uppermost vertebra, the atlas. As the name suggests in ancient Greek, it «carries» and «endures» the head, but its special shape is what enables the tilting movement. Its neighbour, the axis below, enables the rotating movement. As such, this very small area of the spine is responsible for 70% of all the cervical spine’s movements. As for the remaining vertebrae: they contribute to the forward and lateral inclination and rotation movements.

Muscles and ligaments as a protective corset

To protect the cervical spine, three layers of neck muscles and ligaments enclose this sensitive area like a corset. In an incredibly complex form of collaboration, these neck muscles not only enable the three-dimensional movements, but also protect the spine’s smallest segments – i.e. each vertebra – and therefore the entire back from external forces. In this way, a dynamic movement or an unexpected jolt doesn’t damage the vital spinal cord or exiting nerves.

Complex muscular system

How complex the muscular system around the cervical spine is becomes particularly clear in babies – after all, it takes six months for their neck muscles to develop. The complexity lies in the fact that many muscles are able to perform different movements simultaneously: for example, they can stabilise and move at the same time, and also turn and tilt sideways.

A tense neck is a protective mechanism

If an unexpected external force is felt, the cervical spine tenses up relatively quickly. At first, this is nothing more than a protective reaction to help the body. We feel tension relatively clearly in the trapezius, a large muscle in the back that’s responsible for many different movements. However, it’s actually the neck’s deep muscles, such as the musculus splenius capitis or the jaw muscles, that are often tense too. They’re connected anatomically and also functionally with other areas of the head.

Painful neck tension

A tense neck can cause pain that radiates into the arms and head. To eradicate the pain in the long term, it’s important to know the causes of neck pain. But to relieve the pain in the short term, simple home remedies will suffice.

Connection between neck and eyes, ears and balance

Nerves emerge laterally between the vertebrae. The nerves in the cervical spine area are responsible for the eyes, ears, organ of balance, smell and much more. They also serve the neck and shoulders. This means that the nerves – and also neck muscles – are strongly connected to the jaw, eyes and organ of balance.

Possible effects of tension

It can happen that the deep neck muscles become tense and lead to conditions like tinnitus, for example. Tense jaw muscles, on the other hand, can lead to dizziness. Knowing this, it seems understandable that an extremely tense neck can not only cause neck pain, but also headaches or balance problems. But it can also work the other way round: impaired vision can lead to tension in the neck and shoulders.

Activate the spine muscles

So what's clear is: the cervical spine is able to meet the most complex demands. But on a daily basis it’s usually not asked to do much – on the contrary, it’s kept in the same position for hours and becomes tense. Especially in the office, tension and pain – as experienced with cervical syndrome – are not uncommon. Good ergonomics at the workplace is therefore key, as setting furniture and equipment at correct heights and distances relieves the whole body and especially the neck.

Effective exercises for the spine

While one-sided positions under-exert the cervical spine, they also over-exert it as the same posture is often held for hours. Besides standard neck massages and foot reflexology massages, there are a few other simple exercises that prevent tension and help relieve pain.

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