In this article Berkhamsted Osteopath’s resident Sports Osteopath, Charlotte Mead, focuses on cycling neck pain, what causes it, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from coming back.
Although many of us love it, humans weren’t perfectly designed to ride bikes. We evolved to have our feet on the ground and balance our body weight through levers and pulleys designed for a mostly vertical system of movements. The position we create when we cycle changes the weight distribution through our muscles and spine, as well as bending the back and neck into a bit of an unnatural position to compensate so that we can see where we’re going! For some people, this position can be quite extreme, it’s no wonder neck muscles and joints sometimes get tired and irritated. These are symptoms I see in clinic all the time with cyclists, so let’s look at it in more detail.
What goes wrong when cycling?
Road cycling involves extended periods where the neck is hyperextended (tilted backwards), particularly when the bike is set up with a large handlebar drop, e.g. when riding a time trial.
This position can cause the deep neck extensors to become fatigued and stiff. When this occurs the trapezius muscle, which originates from the base of the skull to the shoulder, begins to support the weight of the head. Over time, cyclists can develop stiffness and pain in the upper trapezius and neck muscles.
As well as muscular stiffness, one of the key areas of discomfort is the cervico-thoracic or C/T junction. The C/T junction is the knobbly bit at the base of the neck and the top of the thoracic spine. This is an area which takes a lot of load as it is the point where the extended curve of the neck changes into the flexed curve of the upper back – a change which is exaggerated in the position we need for cycling.
This area can benefit from osteopathic treatment comprising of joint articulation and manipulation to encourage a greater range of movement in that area and help the body compensate. If this area is particularly immobile for you, it may be that stretches and massage alone only have limited effect.
How can we treat cycling neck pain
There are three key ways which can help neck pain caused by cycling:
- Correct bike and kit fit
- Osteopathic treatment to ensure good joint flexibility and health
- Regular stretching to maintain flexibility
Exercises for cycling neck pain
Exercises to warm up the muscles of the neck before heading out on your ride can help prevent neck pain, whereas stretches afterwards can help release tension that has built up during your ride.
You may find it beneficial to stretch under the heat of the shower post-ride, to maximise the effectiveness of the stretches, as well as soothe the muscles with heat therapy at the same time and promote blood flow to help clear away the waste products built up from exercise.
An osteopath will be able to provide more specific advice on which areas you need to focus on and provide focused treatment on the joints, muscles and ligaments which may be contributing to your symptoms.