Don’t let cycling be a pain in the neck. DPT Max Biessmann shares his three quick fixes for helping alleviate and prevent pain, aches and soreness in the upper back and neck while on your bike.
BY MAX BIESSMANN, DPT, RAUSCH PHYSICAL THERAPY
USAT LEVEL I COACH, ASCA LEVEL I COACH, USA SWIMMING COACH
Approximately 66 million Americans enjoy cycling for sport, and why wouldn’t they! It’s a great workout, social, and is perfect for cross training or for people with chronic injuries because of the reduced impact cycling has on the body. Unfortunately, many cyclists find themselves struggling with pain or discomfort, whether it’s the inability to get comfortable on the saddle or one of the most common complaints: neck/upper back pain and discomfort. Many people complain of pain ranging from soreness and aching, to numbness or tingling in their arms and hands, to sharp shooting pains in the neck and arms.
What Causes Neck Pain While Cycling
While cycling, your neck is in an extended position, doing its best to hold up your rather heavy head (the average head is 10 to 11 lbs.) Not only must your muscles do all the heavy lifting since the spine is unable to support the weight directly, but this also causes a closing down of the facet joints in your vertebrae. This constant closing can cause nerve irritation and excessive wear and tear on the joints.
As with anything you do, the longer you spend in a specific position, the more your body adapts to maintain that position. So, when you’re spending hours and hours per day hunched forward at your desk, in front of a laptop, looking at your phone, and on your bike, the more your body adapts to this position. This can cause the common posture dysfunction upper crossed syndrome, which is when your neck extenders (the muscles you use to look up) get short and tight, while the deep neck flexors (the muscles that tuck your chin down) get stretched out and relatively weakened.
Three Easy Ways to Avoid Neck Pain While Cycling
This combination of muscular imbalances and decreased nerve root space can lead to any combination of symptoms from chronic aching to shooting pains. Luckily, there are several very simple things you can do to decrease these symptoms if you already have them or prevent them from starting in the first place.
#1: Check how you’re riding your bikeThe first thing to consider is how you’re riding your bike; a very small change here can have a big positive change. Are your arms always locked out at the elbows? Do you have a death grip on the bars? Are your shoulders hunched up and stuck in your ears? All of these can lead to cycling pain. Here are some quick fixes to make sure you’re riding your bike right:
- Make sure your elbows are slightly bent in order to allow your arms to absorb vibrations and impacts from the road or trail.
- Your hands should be snugly gripping the bars or hoods, but still staying relaxed in order to allow proper blood flow.
- Shoulders should be relaxed and loose to help absorb shocks your elbows can’t absorb alone.
- Make sure to look forward with your eyes as well as your neck in order to try and reduce some of the extension in your neck.
- Check your helmet; it may be sitting too low on your forehead and obstructing your view causing you to look up more.
Remember, while cycling the only part of your body that should be working really hard is your legs; make sure you’re keeping your neck, shoulders and arms in a relaxed ready to go state. If you don’t feel you’re moving correctly on the bike, schedule a Bike Right session and have a physical therapist assess how you’re moving on your bike; having someone else watch you ride can help isolate the specific movement deviations and bad habits you may have developed over time.
#2: Work your body
To help prevent some of the adaptive muscle shortening and nerve compression from cycling, try these 10 simple exercises and stretches. These are also great exercises to do if you work at a desk a lot!
- Pec Stretch: Stand in a doorway and put your arms out to either side and slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch through the front of your chest into your armpit. Play with the height of your arms above, at or below your shoulders to get the various fibers of the muscle. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec each.
- Upper Trap/Scalene: Sitting in a chair, grab the bottom of the chair and side-bend away from that side. Look up for a scalene stretch and look down for a upper trap stretch. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec each side.
- Neck Extensors: While sitting, gently pull the back of your head forward while gently pushing in on your chin till you feel a stretch just at the base of your skull. Don’t crank on this one, take it easy on your jaw, it should be a fairly gentle stretch. Do 2-3x for about 30 sec.
- Pec Release: Take a tennis or lacrosse ball and place it between your chest, near the front of your armpit, and the wall. Roll the ball around until you find any tender spots and spend about 10-20 sec massaging that area. Spend about 1 min on each side
- Upper Trap Release: Place a tennis or lacrosse ball in pillow case and lean against the ball and a wall anywhere between your shoulder blade and spine up through the base of your neck. Massage out any tender or sore spots for about 10-20 sec per area; spend approximately 1 min on each side
- Foam Roll Extensions: In order to take strain off of the joints of your neck make sure your upper back can move well. Lie across a foam roller on your back with your arms supporting your head and your hips on the ground and lean back to extend your upper back. Start about halfway up your back and continue up until just short of your neck. Do about 5 extensions at each spot moving the foam roller up about an inch each time.
- Towel Rotations: Wrap a small hand towel or pillowcase around the back of your neck, grab the ends with the opposite hands. Pull down to anchor the towel with one hand and pull the towel across your chin as you rotate your head, when you get to the end of your range add a little bit of overpressure from the towel to help stretch into the movement.
- Thread the needle: Begin in quadruped position (on hands and knees), place foam roll on the outside of one arm. Once there, reach with the arm furthest away from foam roll under the body to make contact on top of foam roll and roll through, rotating upper spine.
- Chin Tucks: Begin by lying flat on your back with a soft pillow under your head. First gently press the back of your head into the pillow as you tuck your chin in, as if you’re making a double chin, hold for 10 seconds then relax, repeat 10-20 times. If this is easy practice against a wall while doing a wall sit.
- I’s, T’s and Y’s: Lying flat on your stomach, across a swiss ball or end of bed or couch, place your hands at your side (I) out to the side at shoulder height with thumbs up (T’s) or above your head and out to the side (Y’s). The focus of the movement is to move your shoulder blades not so much your arms, squeeze your shoulder blades together and squeeze for 10-15 seconds and relax, repeat 10-20x in each position. The Y’s will be the hardest so start with less reps here and advance as it becomes easier. While lying on your stomach focus on good posture through your entire spine all the way to the top of your head.
#3: Get a Bike Fit
If none of these “quick fixes” seem to help, it may be time to reassess your bike fit. First off, were you ever fit? If so, how long ago? Your body changes, so you should really get a bike fit every year or so.
There are many aspects of the bike fit that can affect how much strain and what kind of strain is being placed on your neck and upper back:
- The most obvious is your handlebar height; the lower they are the more you have to look forward to see (looking at you, triathletes!)
- The length of your bike, the distance between saddle to handlebar, can also affect how much you have to reach and how you carry your weight through your arms.
- The width of your handlebars may be too wide or to narrow, which can make it difficult for your arms to rest or settle in a comfortable position.
- Triathletes, look at both bullhorn and aerobar pad positions.
- The angle of your hoods on a road bike might pitch the angle of your wrists and affect how you carry your weight through your arms.
- The tilt of your saddle can cause you to be unbalanced between handlebars and saddle.
- Nikki at Rock N’ Road Cyclery (Laguna Niguel)
- Dave Jordaan – Cyber Cycle Coach (Irvine)
- Rick Schultz – Bike Religion (Dana Point)
Don’t let neck pain stop you from enjoying the sport you love. By making a few quick adjustments and getting a professional bike fit, you can continue to ride hard and ride long for many years to come.
Max Biessmann, DPT is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. He received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree at the University of St. Augustine, San Marcos in 2016 and started his career at Rausch PT. Max is passionate about helping people achieve their goals through physical therapy and innovative rehab technologies. As the Endurance Sports PT, Max says he’s lucky to be able to combine his professional coaching experience and PT knowledge to help his patients achieve their personal bests in sports and daily life.