MOJO's Got Your Back - The Cervical Spine

New on myMOJO.tv this week!

Let’s get back on track with our re-introduction to the splendid spine, shall we? If you missed the first installment, check it out here. I’ve received a lot of great feedback about this series: especially regarding the anatomical overview. You see, if you’re like me you don’t bother to get to know your body’s mechanics until something breaks and you’re forced to figure it out in order to get out of pain. So, hopefully this will help us all get a clearer picture of how our spines are designed to function optimally, and the measures we can take to not only avoid breaking our backs but to keep them in tip-top shape. 

However, before we get into this week’s anatomy lesson, I want you to have our free video of the week in your arsenal: our Yoga for Surfers Warm Up! Aside from being so very nice and summery, this practice begins with an extensive and delightful sequence for our necks and shoulders. I started out this practice with that focus because surfers tend to run into quite a bit of trouble with neck problems. But, of course surfers aren’t the only ones who get neck problems! So, surfers and non-surfers alike will definitely benefit from this therapeutic sequence that will keep our machinery well-oiled! 

My challenge to you: see if you can integrate some of the knowledge you gain from this week’s blog into your physical practice of this free video of the week

*Uh-oh, this free video of the week expired! To get unlimited, 24/7 access, just click one of the links in the preview and become a MOJO Member today.*

 

Now, for all this anatomical amazingness…

1. THE CERVICAL SPINE: AN OVERVIEW

The cervical spine makes up the support structure in your neck, and is quite incredible. While it delicately and safely houses your spinal cord, it is also amazingly flexible and strong. Your cervical spine consists of 7 vertebrae. 

 

 

2. ATLAS & AXIS

The first 2 cervical vertebrae are quite unique and actually have special names: C1 is the Atlas and C2 is the Axis. The Atlas supports your skull at the occiput, the bony protrusions at the base of your skull. This juncture is called the atlanto-occipital joint and has no disc. The Atlas is ring-shaped and rotates around the next vertebra, the Axis. The Axis has a round protrusion, the odontoid process, that is the pivot around which the Atlas rotates. The juncture of the Atlas and the Axis also has no disc, and is called the atlanto-axial joint. This whole area is structurally supported by surrounding ligaments. The structure of this area allows you to shake your head no and nod yes. 

Many people, myself included, have some trouble with periodic misalignment or compression of C1 and C2, which can not only be a literal pain in the neck, but can also be the catalyst for splitting headaches. Such headaches that feel like they start from stiffness in the neck are the result of compression of the nerves between C1-2. Those nerves serve the back and top of the head and sometimes the jaw. The side on which the headache is experienced is typically the side on which the compression is present. 

This type of compression is usually the result of poor posture (busted!), specifically, reaching the chin forward, looking up for extended periods of time, or holding your head in a tilted or twisted position for a long time (such as at a theater). The solution? Are you familiar with Jalandara Bandha, like in the picture here? That action, even in the slightest, can help maintain a more optimal alignment of the neck. Pretty neat, huh?

 

3. C3-C7

The rest of the cervical vertebrae are shaped more like much of the rest of the vertebrae in the spine, and are numbered from C3-C7. These vertebrae really have quite a free range of movement, allowing for rotation, flexion/extension, and lateral bending. In contrast, the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae favor more particular directional movement, either extension and flexion or rotation. 

 

The reason for the cervical spine's greater range of motion lies in the shape of the vertebrae: the steep slope of the transverse processes and the relatively steep slope of the spinous processes. This allows neighboring vertebrae significant movement in relation to each other, whereas the shallower slope of the same points in lower vertebrae restrict their neighbors' movement. If you missed the spiel on vertebrae and their components, do yourself a favor and check it out so you know what the heck all that means. The large spinous process of the lowest cervical vertebra, C7, is actually a bit of an exception in the cervical spine and presents an example of that movement restriction elsewhere in the spine. You can see that were you to tilt your head back, the spinous process of C6 will be stopped from movement back and down by the spinous process of C7. Among the cervical vertebrae, you might be most familiar with C7 as the point that sticks out the farthest when you reach back there and feel around with your fingertips. It's the notably large spinous process of this vertebra that you feel. 

4. YOUR UNIQUE CERVICAL SPINE

The cervical vertebrae are quite a bit smaller than the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, gradually getting smaller from C7 up to C1. Also unique to the cervical vertebrae are openings called transverse vertebral foramen, which allow vertebral arteries safe passage to bring fresh oxygen to your brain. You'll notice, too, that there are passageways between each vertebra through which nerves exit the spinal cord and travel outward. Those openings are called foramina. The cervical nerves serve the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, diaphragm, heart, lungs, and chest.

5. COMMON PROBLEMS

We already mentioned one common problem in the cervical spine: nerve compression. Other common issues are disc herniation, cervical degeneration related to bone spurs or arthritis, acute cervical injury, disc degeneration, and cervical spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the space in which the spinal cord is housed, resulting in compression of the spinal cord). Man, those are a lot of problems.

6. A HEALTHY NECK FOR LIFE

Fortunately, many of these issues are the result of simple wear and tear, so mindful attention to how we hold ourselves up and use our necks can help our cervical spines go the distance with us. Bringing it home to yoga, I've already mentioned how Jalandhara Bandha is a tremendous help in keeping our necks aligned optimally. But what else can we do? 

When practicing asana, always pay attention to how your neck feels: pain, stiffness, or a feeling of compression are all red flags alerting you to the need to change how you are holding your head. A great example of this is in attempting the full variation of Utthita Trikonasana, extended triangle pose, where the final piece is turning your gaze up to your lifted hand. If your neck hurts when you do this, simply look to the side or down. Easy. There is no reason to put strain on your neck. Ever. 

Another great example is in Salamba Sarvangasana, shoulder stand. I put all of my students on blankets for this pose to provide more space for your neck. I'll also instruct you to move your legs and feet back away from alignment over your face and towards alignment over your elbows. In this alignment your body is arching slightly into a backbend. This action moves the weight of the pose off of your neck and on to your shoulders and arms, where it is much safer. We'll even practice this pose at the wall or in a chair, where we can work with a greater exaggeration of this action that is usually not accessible in the middle of the room. 

And of course, last but not least, are those glorious movements we do to stimulate the Marma Points in the neck. For me, these are regular daily maintenance for my neck, just as brushing is for my teeth. I do them at least once a day. With as much as I work on the computer, though, I usually wind up doing them many, many times throughout the day as well. And if you’ve forgotten what this exercise entails, just zip back up to the top of this post and do the free video this week, as I include the neck and shoulder portions of the Marma Points in the beginning of that video. 

I hope you found this detailed dive into the anatomy of your neck enlightening and empowering. Remember to incorporate all this knowledge into your movements as you work with this week’s free video, as well as with any of your yoga practices and all your movements in the world. Until next time…

 
 

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