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I was coaching my son’s competitive soccer team yesterday. The boys on the team are all between the ages of eight and nine years old. While the other coach had the team perform practice drills one of the fathers of one of the boys came up to me. He told me that his son had just come from the doctor’s office. He had been complaining of a pain in his neck. He had been diagnosed with a pinched nerve

They determined that how this happened was because he sat in his classroom all day turning his head left to pay attention to his teacher. The teacher hadn’t thought of the ramifications of organizing the desks in a horseshoe shaped layout. The purpose of the desk positions was so students could face one another for optimal class participation. Unfortunately, the room layout caused a majority of students to twist their head in one direction when the teacher gave lessons at the front of the room. The result for at least one student was to develop a really stiff neck.

I asked the father if the doctor had given our young soccer star any exercises to relieve the issue. He replied yes, and demonstrated a couple of the stretches. The dad began by taking one hand and grabbing the side of his head and pulling it down to one side or the other. Then he grabbed the back of his head and began pulling his chin to his chest. He asked me what I thought of the exercises as my face twisted. Here is what I told him.

Although the head can be a bobblehead and tilt forward and backward, side bend to the left and right, and turn side to side, that is not how movement primarily occurs for the head and body. If you watch your son out on the field right now what do you see? Is his head moving in all of those directions or is it staying pretty still while his body does all of the moving? His eyes stay fixed on his target, and so does his head. Now as his target moves his head will follow, but his body will come around to face the target too.

The trouble with the stretches the doctor gave your son is that they do not take into consideration how the body actually moves, they are just based on what his medical school anatomy books told him. The trouble with most anatomy books is that they base most of the information on studying cadavers on an examination table and not living human bodies as they are in motion. Therefore how muscles are explained in the anatomy books are just partially correct and incomplete. The muscles of the neck will pull the head in all the directions the doctor encouraged. However, the way the muscles really work is to keep the head locked on the horizon while the body moves in many directions below it.

I asked the father if he would be okay if I gave his soccer star a few movements to help unlock his neck to “un-pinch” the nerve. With his approval, here’s what we did. I grabbed one of the practice cones off the field and placed it on the top of the boy’s head. I said, “We’re going to play a little game now. Don’t let the cone fall off your head.” I asked him to bow forward. On his first attempt, the cone fell off. By the second attempt, he figured out that he had to keep his head level at all times for the cone to stay on his head. Next, I asked him to bend back like he was in a limbo contest and then come back up. We did these actions several times without any pain. Then I asked him to lean his body sideways to the left and right. The cone fell off again and again until he figured out what he had to do to keep it there. Finally, I asked him to reach his left arm across to his right and then right arm across to his left. His whole body was pivoting underneath a level head. We checked in to see how things felt and a smile began to appear on his face. I encouraged him to keep doing this fun game and try a different object next time that was a little harder to balance.

What we really did was re-educate his nervous system and his supporting tissue to perform it’s primary purpose of maintaining a level head while the body is in motion. When the body is reminded of how it should move with the least restriction, it tends to want to do it more. It was cool that we could make a game out of it so it was not just some boring exercises an adult told him he had to do. It was really selfish on my part because we have a game today and I really hate losing.