How To Prevent Back Injuries Or Neck Injuries From Cycling

How To Prevent Back Injuries Or Neck Injuries From Cycling

What is the news on the pain in my neck?

This boils down to an overuse injury. When a cyclist logs many hours of riding, there is repetitive sub-maximal loading on the upper back and neck which leads to damage.

When a muscle has a sustained contraction for a long period of time, the circulation of blood into that muscle becomes compromised. This is because the muscle contraction puts pressure on the blood vessels where the arterioles and capillaries are squeezing themselves shut, thus reducing blood supply.

This is not a problem when a muscle is alternating between contracting and relaxing such as the muscles in the leg do when a cyclist is pedaling. When the muscles in our upper back and neck are contracted for lengthy periods of time, the blood circulation in this area is greatly reduced. This means muscles are asked to perform a continual workload but without adequate oxygen and nutrients. This typically will lead to painful muscle spasms and trigger points.

The part of a muscle fiber that performs the contracting is a microscopic unit called a sarcomere. Contraction occurs in a sarcomere when its two parts come together and interlock like fingers. Millions of the microscopic units have to contract in your muscles to make the smallest of movements. A trigger point exists when over-stimulated sarcomeres are chemically prevented from releasing from their interlocked state. A knot can develop, then a spasm, followed by lots of pain. At this point you have got problems.

What types of things can be done to help?

You probably already know that stretching is advantageous to avoiding muscle related injuries. In addition to the stretching the neck and upper back muscles, you can also vastly benefit from two exercises: reverse shoulder shrugs and elbow presses.

Reverse shoulder shrugs are great because they make the muscles in the neck and upper back region alternate between full contraction and full relaxation. Reverse shoulder shrugs are performed by shrugging your shoulders upward toward your ears and then back down toward the ground and behind you. It is important to do reverse shoulder shrugs (shrugging down and back) rather than regular forward shoulder shrugs.

This is because forward shoulder shrugs make the back hunch forward into that chimp-like posture you are trying to avoid. Being hunched forward prevents the muscles of the upper back from contracting enough to accomplish the desired "contract, relax, contract, relax" movement pattern. In fact, when I am doing this exercise properly, I have my chest sticking pushed up and forward like the proudest of Marines.

Doing this exercise properly and regularly will get the muscles in the upper back and neck pumping and cyclists will notice a positive difference within a few times of performing the exercise.

Elbow presses are also a great blood pumping exercise that assists in nourishing the upper back with an optimal blood supply. This helps battle the sustained sub-maximal contraction that cinches down on the muscle's small arteries which occur with long bike rides. To perform elbow presses, bring your elbows out away from the body at the shoulder level. Then pull your elbows back as far as you can, causing the muscles around your shoulder blades and upper back to contract before you bring the elbows back to the starting point. Continue performing reps until you get a mild 'burn' in the muscles.

Remember to use common sense when planning any shoulder exercises. Especially if you have or a susceptible to shoulder issues such as a rotator cuff injury.
There are some basic neck movements that may help neck range of motion as well. Here are the movements I like to use:

  • flexion (chin to chest)
  • extension (head up)
  • right and left rotation (chin pointing toward the point of the shoulder)
  • right and left lateral flexion (ear to the shoulder).
Another problem that commonly occurs in the upper back and neck area is Thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS for short. TOS accounts for much of the nerve-like discomfort in the shoulder region and down into the arms. Symptoms can range from muscle tension headaches, neck pain, pain in the shoulders, and arm pain. Weakness or tingling in any of these areas may be attributed to thoracic outlet syndrome.

Essentially, thoracic outlet syndrome is a compression of the bundle of nerves, arteries, and veins that go down into the arms. Over-development of the muscles in the area, such as the scalene muscles, contribute to this problem. Typically athletes in strength sports like football and baseball are most susceptible, but cyclists also experience thoracic outlet syndrome-type symptoms. The difference is that cyclists are more likely to suffer from muscle tightness or spasm at the base of the neck. Again, muscle movement and stretching are effective in relieving discomfort.

How to Prevent Back Injuries or Neck Injuries from Cycling

Select the best bicycle for your purpose. For casual bike riders, a mountain bike with higher, straight handle bars (allow more upright posture), and bigger tires (more shock absorption) may be a better option than a racing style bicycle.

Adjust the bicycle properly to fit one's body. If possible, this is best achieved with the assistance of an experienced professional at a bicycle shop.

Use proper form when biking; distribute some weight to the arms and keep the chest up; shift positions periodically.

Periodically gently lifting and lowering the head to loosen the neck and avoid neck strain
Discuss and review your pedaling technique with a personal trainer or other knowledgeable professional in order to get the most out of the exercise.

Use shock absorbing bike accessories including seats and seat covers, handlebar covers, gloves, and shock absorbers on the front forks (front shocks or full suspension shocks depending on the type of riding you plan to do and the terrain)