It’s common for aerialists and polers to complain about neck pain. It can range from stiffness in the back of the neck, to limited range of motion to getting headaches after class. Many of my past posts address back issues that are related to neck issues, but I haven't isolated the neck so here we go. First off, the body is a system and if one part of the system breaks down other parts of the system are affected by the change. The body works cohesively and often pain in one area is actually related to something going on somewhere else.
The deal with neck pain is that you likely have some muscular imbalances that are causing the problem.
I can help you identify what might be causing the issue and in the next post in this series I’ll give you some stretches. I have written many, many, many posts on strengthening the imbalanced muscle groups and I will provide those links as well. The best option if you are experiencing severe neck pain is to see a medical professional and get a professional opinion on the issue. Seeing a physical therapist can help with treatment and visiting a massage therapists can also help relieve the pain.
How aerial-related neck pain often happens
Overdeveloped lats and pecs
Any time you do an inversion or lift in aerial arts you are engaging a myriad of muscles in the chest and upper back as the primary movers. There are of course other muscles such as the abdominals, bicep and tricep and often for cirque, aerial and pole we are creating lovely lines so many stabilizer muscles are working too, hence the full body workout reputation that aerial has gained.
Even with amazing form, we often end up overusing the lats and pecs and underusing the rhomboids, traps (especially upper traps) and smaller shoulder girdle muscles. When the big muscles (pecs and lats) get stronger and bigger they often get tighter and more restricted. This restriction in movement can end up pulling on the less developed muscle groups, and for the neck this is often the levator scapulae and sometimes the upper traps. The less developed muscles can’t win the battle against the stronger and bigger muscles and imbalance in the system is created.
The truth bomb here is that larger muscles are larger and in general they will always be stronger. Our goal as aerialists is to figure out the imbalance issues in our bodies and use corrective exercises to train the weaker muscles and stretch the bigger muscles so that the system goes back to happy homeostasis.
Overusing the upper traps
One of the major culprits beyond overdeveloped lats and pecs is the upper traps. The upper traps have the job of lifting or elevating the shoulder, (yes, other muscles help out too) but in general we use the upper traps for this elevation. In theory, with good engagement and form we are not really supposed to be using the upper traps that much in aerial. However, any time you lift your arms over your head the upper traps are naturally going to fire as it is their job. However, it’s possible to be overusing them or engaging them incorrectly. What we want to look at is if we are possibly engaging the upper traps too much in day-to-day aerial and may need to fix our shoulder engagement. We may also be over training which can over work muscles and then we end up recruiting stabilizers like the upper traps and through the balance of the system off. The other issue can be holding daily stress in the upper traps, but we’ll get to that.
As this related to the neck muscles, overdeveloped upper traps can strain neck muscles as the underdeveloped neck muscles are one, being pulled on but the tight muscles and two, the undeveloped neck muscles can actually stop firing correctly, get tight and knot up or force another muscle group to take on the work. Again, the system gets out of the balance and all hell breaks loose in your neck.
Issues with form
I have numerous posts of proper form and how to train it, especially for scapular retraction, which is a key part of engaging for an inversion, pull-up or lift. Scapular retraction is when the shoulder blades squeeze inward toward the spine, activating the rhomboids, middle and lower traps with smaller shoulder girdle muscles. The other part of proper inversion form is shoulder depression which is when the shoulders down and back, activating the lower traps and releasing the upper traps.
This combination (scapular retraction and shoulder depression) is crucial for good form and injury prevention in pole and aerial arts. When the body has this combination activated it relieves the pecs and lats from full duty and helps stop overdevelopment in the pecs, lats and upper traps. It also develops the rhomboids, lower traps and shoulder muscles so they are not underdeveloped and more susceptible to injury and imbalance issues.
I am a big fan of reading about how the mind and body work together. There is now a ton of research indicating that we are indeed holding stress in our bodies. Not surprisingly, the upper traps, shoulders and neck are one of the major spots of stress holding. It's worth looking at major stressors in your life and figuring out if this stress is showing up in your body. On a side note, trauma can also manifest in the body in areas like the shoulders. We are animals, our biology is programmed to tell us when there is something stressful. It used to be saber tooth tigers and dire bears, but long-term chronic stressful situations can also be causing stress to show up in the body.
Also take a look at your work situation, if you are on a computer, look at your desk height and setup and see if this may be contributing to the neck issues. Is your work environment causing stress, you may be elevating the shoulders as a reaction to the stress or when you feel anxious. If you work in an intense environment like a hospital or industry that requires a lot of movement, look at what your neck and shoulders are doing at work.