Neck pain usually relates to the prolonged time that cyclist’s necks spend in an extended position. It can be attributed to 3 primary factors:
Poking your chin forwards and hyperextending your neck places stress and constant compression on the posterior joints in your neck, particularly if sustained for a long period of time. When a cyclist logs many hours of riding, there is repetitive sub-maximal loading on the upper back and neck causing micro-trauma to the tissues, which can lead to pain, damaging inflammation and clinical injury.
Overusing cervical extensors and upper trapezius muscles will lead to painful fatigue of these muscles. When a muscle undergoes sustained contraction for a long period of time, the circulation of blood into that muscle becomes compromised due to pressure on blood vessels. The muscles are starved of precious oxygen and nutrients while being asked to perform with a continual workload which can lead to painful muscle spasms and trigger points. Trigger points are small knots that form in muscle and adjacent muscle sheaths (fascia), which send pain signals to the brain and contribute to a pain-spasm-pain cycle. This increased muscle tone can also further compress the joints at the base of your neck.
One of the main causes of neck pain in cyclists is poor posture. Sometimes it is simply a bad habit that needs to be corrected. However, if you are unaware of this posture and are unable to recruit/activate the muscles required to put you in an ideal one it will be difficult to correct. Your goal on your bike, and anywhere for that matter, is to maintain a good neutral spine posture. This is the position where there is the least strain on your knots for the most efficient amount of muscle work.
Poor bike fit can exacerbate poor posture. Improper position of the seat and handlebars can place abnormal stress on the neck and shoulders. When everything on your bike is in the correct position, this spine posture should be more natural and effortless.
Some common bike fit errors are:
Assuming that your bike is set up well, here are some simple tips for improving your on-bike posture:
As cyclists build up their training volume they often suffer from aches in the cervical, thoracic or lumbar spine due to the lengthy periods for which they maintain their flexed trunk and extended neck position. The training for any cyclists intending to build up to a high weekly mileage should be gradual and structured to slowly build up tolerance and condition. During this time your physiotherapist will ensure that any joint stiffness or muscle tightness is attended to, whilst also teaching correct posture and muscle activation for cycling.
Postural exercises for scapular retractors (and especially for lower trapezius activation) are essential to minimise neck problems, as is lower/deep abdominal activation for a stable core. Poor core stability results in an inability to hold your trunk and spine in a good position. This in turn can put extra weight on your hands and force you to over-reach and overextend your neck.