Surfer’s Neck: Not Just a Surfer’s Issue

The following information is from a blog post by Keval Shah for Iron Neck, a company based in Austin that has developed a cool tool for neck-specific strengthening.  It is likely that many Austinites are NOT surfers.  However, the benefits of a strong neck extend to a multitude of other types of people as well.  Folks that spend a lot of time in one position for any activity tend to develop specific patterns of muscle use that build up some muscles while letting others be inactive.  Part of what is a challenge for surfers – paddling on the board with the arms overhead while the neck is extended back – is also a challenge for people that work with their arms in elevated positions, like electricians or painters.  Athletes that play “overhead sports” like volleyball or tennis also use some of the same movement patterns.  Surfer’s Neck could also readily be translated to be “Tech Neck”.  Desk workers that spend hours and hours looking at a computer screen often develop postural habits that overuse muscles in the shoulders, upper back, and the back of the neck while underutilizing the muscles on the front of the neck that should be used to help to stabilize the head. 

Iron Neck – the device described in Keval’s blog – is a tool that Symmetry has utilized in the clinic for the last several years.  It was originally developed with the aim of increasing neck strength and size in athletes, to limit their risk of neck injuries and head injuries such as concussions.  The original devices were quite heavy and bulky and were great for large muscular people, but were a bit overwhelming for folks that are smaller or more slight. Over time, the company has adapted the device to be lighter and more comfortable for anyone to utilize, because the device absolutely has value as a rehabilitation tool.  The newer versions of Iron Neck are used in the Symmetry clinic by patients of all ages, shapes, and sizes, with conditions ranging from whiplash injuries to neck pain and headaches, and even to jaw and facial pain.

So even if you don’t surf, the information in this article may well apply to you.  Read on for more of what Keval wrote:

“Whether it’s from a nasty wipeout or the result of overuse from paddling, “surfers’ neck” is as painful as it is debilitating. An unfortunate reality for anyone who loves this sport is that it can sometimes take a toll on your joints and soft tissue. This means that it is a good idea to be aware of the signs and symptoms of conditions like surfers’ necks.

The good news is you don’t have to let pain keep you from doing what you love. We’re going to cover everything you need to know about this common surfing ailment. We’ll start by discussing what exactly it is, and what specific aspect of surfing causes it. After that, you’ll discover the best way to prevent & treat it, so you can get back on the board and stay on it without nagging injuries hampering you!

What Is Surfer’s Neck?

We’re going to kick this article off by helping you understand what exactly surfer’s neck is, along with what typically causes it. The name of this condition describes neck pain or impingement throughout the upper back as a result of surfing. We mentioned that this can be caused when surfers experience physical trauma – like a nasty wipeout. More often than not though, this is an overuse injury.

Due to the mechanics involved in surfing, your body is going to take on some stress in certain muscle groups.  Your neck, or specifically the back of the neck, is one of these. You can also expect to take on extra stress in your upper back in general, the shoulder muscles, and sometimes even the lower back.

What Are The Symptoms Of Surfers Neck?

As you can imagine, tightness and pain are the two main symptoms associated with surfer’s neck – but they aren’t the only ones. If you’re suffering from this condition, you may also experience one or more of the following things:

  • Tingling which radiates from the neck into the shoulders, arms, and hands/fingers.
  • Dizziness or headaches (usually which develop shortly after the surf outing).  These symptoms can develop into migraines in some severe cases.
  • Muscle weakness, tenderness, and tightness.

You don’t want to be the one in your friend group that has to stop surfing because the body just breaks down.You may hear that this condition is somewhat inevitable when you surf.  But that’s only if you don’t learn what causes it and how you can prevent/correct it. Keep reading so that you can surf into your old age and enjoy this hobby without spine injuries!

Why Does My Neck Hurt From Surfing?

It isn’t the actual act of riding a wave that causes surfer’s neck. Instead, it’s the frequent, intense paddling and the consistent overextension of the neck while lying prone on the board. When you paddle into the surf, this constant lifting of the head and upper back can compromise the cervical spine posture. The paddling is followed up by lifting yourself up onto your feet by pushing forcefully & quickly with your arms, further putting pressure on your shoulders and cervical spine.  These movements can be no problem if you are strong and your mechanics are good.  However, pain can be produced over time if your body is not well-conditioned for the activity.

As you surf, you are looking up at what’s in front of you – because timing is everything. But this means the neck (cervical spine) is in pretty constant overextension.  Then, when you throw in the upper arm and shoulder movement of paddling along with this vulnerable position, you increase the probability of neck pain and injury. We know that paddling and lifting yourself up onto your feet is just a part of surfing – there really is no way around this. But, that doesn’t mean you are stuck dealing with neck pain forever.

How To Prevent & Treat Surfers Neck

There are quite a few ways that you can manage neck pain associated with surfing, and even prevent/eliminate it altogether. These tactics range from warming up properly to actively strengthening your neck outside of the water.  We’re going to cover some ways that you can keep surfing pain-free.

Properly Warming Up To Prevent Upper Back & Neck Pain

When your muscles are cold, they are more at risk for injury. You wouldn’t start lifting weights without warming up, so why would you surf without warming up? This is especially important if you’re a cold water surfer, but warming up is a must for everyone. And there are even specific anti-surfer’s neck exercises you can implement!

Getting good blood circulation to your neck will greatly reduce the chance of injury and also increase neck mobility – both of which are essential factors in injury prevention. Warm-up activity can be as simple as gently rolling your neck in circles for a minute or so. This will warm up the lateral muscles on the neck. But, we mentioned that the neck being in overextension is the biggest contributor to surfer’s neck. So it would also be a good idea to do some exercises where you go into extension and flexion, looking up and down and working to tuck your chin and activate the tiny muscles on the back and the front sides of the neck simultaneously.

Maintain A Neutral Spine & Brace While You Paddle

As you now know, many of the instances of surfers’ necks occur while paddling, as the neck also overextends. Being cognizant of this while you paddle, and trying to optimize your cervical posture by keeping your neck tucked as much as possible will go a long way in preventing and helping manage the symptoms of surfers neck.

Thinking about good posture goes for your upper back and chest as well.  If your thoracic spine goes into overextension too much, you’ll eventually feel the effects of this in the form of upper back pain, which can be just as painful or debilitating as surfers neck! You can further protect your spine while paddling by bracing your core and keeping your spine “long” as you paddle. This will activate your abdominal muscles so that they share the work load of paddling, protecting both your upper and lower back.

Loosening Up After A Surfing Session

Even the best warmup won’t always eliminate the tension and pain that comes with a long day of surfing. The good news is that you can manage this inflammation and tightness in your upper back and neck muscles after the fact. Once you are back home, take a foam roller or lacrosse ball to your upper back muscles – massaging muscles like the rear deltoids, traps, lats, and even the tiny muscles of your neck. You might also use a Theracane or something similar to accomplish this massage. Pin the muscle in place with the Theracane when you find a hot spot, and apply as much pressure as is comfortable. Lean into the tension and hold until you feel a release.

You can follow up a post-surfing massage by stretching the neck, shoulder, and chest muscles. To finish off your recovery session, you might take an Epsom salt bath. You’ll find that if you spend the 30-45 minutes after you surf working on recovery, you won’t be inclined to feel the symptoms of surfer’s neck nearly as much.

Actively Strengthen The Neck To Prevent Injuries To the Spine

A strong, muscular neck doesn’t just look good and help you maintain your posture – studies have shown that the stronger your neck is, the more resistant it is to injury. This is why if you’re going to take on a sport like surfing, you’d be well advised to adopt a training plan that helps you mobilize, stabilize, and strengthen the neck.

There are all kinds of exercises you can implement to stretch and strengthen the tiny muscles in your neck, but when it comes to surfing – those that strengthen the muscles associated with extension and flexion are potentially the most important.

How Do You Strengthen Your Neck?

At first, you can get started by using your head’s weight – the human head can weigh as much as 15 pounds. If you’re new to neck training, you’ll find that it doesn’t take much to get a good workout at first. Over time though, you’ll want to incorporate some additional form of resistance to continue strengthening your neck.

For additional resistance, you can either use a neck harness with resistance bands or even weighted plates if you have them. If you’re not looking to spend much – these are super budget-friendly and allow you to train the major muscle groups in your neck. But if you’re a serious athlete and want to be more dynamic in your training, you might consider investing in the Iron Neck Training Device.

With the Iron Neck device, you will have 360-degree training capabilities, and you’ll be able to do a wider variety of exercises to help manage neck and back pain than with the use of any other piece of equipment or machine.

Incorporate All These Strategies To Prevent Or Combat Surfer’s Neck

With all of these pieces of advice we’ve laid out, you are now well equipped to prevent or manage the pain associated with this condition. Now you can enjoy your favorite activity pain-free and without the worry of injury. In parting, my advice would be to incorporate all of the strategies we’ve mentioned – as they work synergistically to keep your neck injury-free while surfing. If you don’t warm up, or you skimp on your neck training or omit any aspect of this protocol, you are not preparing to the best of your ability. Invest in your body, and you’ll be able to do the things you enjoy for years to come – surfing included!”