by Diane Spicer
Before getting into neck injury prevention for hikers, let me ask you a question.
Is your neck ever sore after a hike?
Mine usually is.
And that bugs me.
I try to do everything right on the topic of neck injury prevention while hiking, and I'll share my approach in a moment.
But first, I think it's worthwhile to consider the structure of that delicate, highly mobile, but strong connection between your trunk and your skull. It will help us to understand why a sore neck and hiking might go hand in hand.
Because your sore neck in the absence of trauma (being hit by a falling branch, falling and striking your head, receiving a blow on the back, etc.) is not something to ignore.
You and a giraffe have the same number of bones in the neck.
Wild, isn't it?
The neck bones (cervical vertebrae) are 7 little (compared with farther down the spinal column) beauties stacked one atop the next.
Because they are stacked, they are able to swivel and bend.
The tower of bones doesn't fall apart, because their joints are supported by soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia).
In addition, these bones are asked to bear weight: they hold up your head with its big, impressive brain.
This is no small task! Your head weighs several pounds (more if you're taking a calculus or astrophysics class).
To mobilize the neck, you need muscles.
A few strap-like muscles named for where they attach to bones:
Whew! Big long names that indicate the fact that the muscle fibers run between the skull and the chest.
You also need a few larger muscles.
Test it out right now:
And just one more fun name: your trapezius (a big trapezoid shape) attaches your head to your shoulders (among other things).
I'd say that's also a mighty important muscle to keep pain-free, wouldn't you?
Which brings us to an examination (it will be short and graded on a curve, I promise) of your posture as a hiker.
It's probably not a habit (yet) to check the position of your jaw in relation to your shoulders, but it's a fast way to see if you carry your head in a bent or forward position relative to your body.
Another thing to check:
Are you by any chance holding your shoulders high or in a hunched position?
If you don't want to check your own neck position, at least try this:
If you do this long enough, you'll find yourself itching to stop them to share these neck injury prevention for hikers tips that I'm about to share (tell 'em it's a bit of tough love from Hiking For Her!).
So what's my point here?
Actually, I have two points, in the interest of neck injury prevention:
First, cold muscles at the start of a hike are a great way to sustain a neck injury.
I tend to hunch my shoulders and hold my neck stiffly when I'm cold. I try to pay attention to these bad habits, but sometimes I'm a few miles into a snowshoe trip or late fall hike before I realize what a pain in the neck I'm creating for myself.
So please tune into the amount of tension in your neck, and breathe deeply to let it go.
Tip: I've found that keeping my neck warm with a fleece wrap around scarf helps avoid muscle tension.
This, in turn, aids in neck injury prevention.I also use this type of scarf on cool summer mornings, and to fall asleep without hunching up in my sleeping bag on chilly evenings.
Osteoarthritis (the "wear and tear" type, not the inflammatory rheumatoid type) shows up in neck joints in most women sooner or later.
Here's where the proper pack, with properly adjusted straps, is vitally important.
Neck injury prevention for hikers also includes avoiding trail hazards.
If you're on a long hike, swing your head from side to side occasionally, bringing more blood to the area and relieving tension on neck muscles. Making these little self care rituals a part of your hiking routine goes a long way toward neck injury prevention for hikers.
And please! Avoid my bad habit: thrusting my jaw out in front, trying to catch glimpses of what's ahead on the trail.
When you take a rest break, remember to bring your fingers to your neck muscles and knead gently.
If you're sleeping on the ground during a backpacking trip, create a neck roll or pillow with extra clothing.
One more tip: Consider adjusting your hiking pace. Back off if you're going fast, or try for a more consistent pace that your neck can "settle into" without strain.
In short, baby your neck BEFORE it starts to hurt.
Neck injury prevention for hikers becomes higher on your list if you've already experienced neck pain.
Have you tried an over-the-counter gel or ointment preparation for pain relief?
Mineral Ice is my personal favorite because it creates instant relief from inflammation, but its strong odor does not recommend it for use in bear country.
I enjoy the cooling sensation it provides to my hot inflamed areas.
One word of warning: Don't rub your eyes or put your fingers in your mouth until you've washed this product off your hands.
Take a look at it here:Mineral Ice Pain Relieving Gel, 3.5 oz
Another approach, in conjunction with Mineral Ice, is to hunt for your trigger points and spasms with your fingers.
If you experience a buzzy sensation or feel light headed, that's enough neck work for the moment.
Protect your neck while hiking by becoming mindful of these things:
Paying attention to neck injury prevention for hikers is a great investment in your hiking future!
Begin to make some of these recommended adjustments today, and bid good bye to neck pain as a hiker.
Neck Injury Prevention
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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