Neck Pain – Caused by My Breathing?

Skyler Zarndt MS, ATC, CSCS

For those of us with “tight” necks, we all know the struggle.  It feels like we carry all of our stress in our necks, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

We wake up – stiff neck.  We sit at our computer during the day – stiff neck.  We workout – stiff neck.

Someone might tell you to lay on a lacrosse ball, but that can get clumsy and vague.

What about a massage?  Great idea…if you can afford the constant treatments necessary.  You’ll get temporary relief (maybe), temporary pain (if the therapist is doing his/her job), and a thinner wallet (no doubt).

What about stretching?  Sure, stretching might not be a bad thing.  But if the muscles in the neck are already tight and we stretch them more, we can equate that to pulling both ends of a rope that’s knotted in the middle.  We may experience some temporary relief, but we aren’t getting to the source of the problem.

So what gives?

Well, the reason many of us have tight necks is simply because we have crappy breathing patterns.

Wait…breathing?  What does my neck have to do with breathing?

If you missed my articles on breathing and the diaphragm, check them out.

In summary, HOW we breathe can play a HUGE role in posture, athletic performance, core stability, overall levels of stress (cortisol), and even inflammation levels in the body.

In regards to neck pain/tight neck musculature, it’s actually pretty simple.  If we simply look at the biomechanics of how we breathe, and how we breathe improperly, you’ll easily understand why we get so tight.

First, let’s take a look at the musculature surrounding the neck that gets “tight.”

necks muscles


Let’s go ahead on focus on the Sternocleidomastoid, Levator Scapulae, and the Scalenes (all 3 portions).

All 3 of these muscles contribute heavily not only to the feeling of a tight neck, but also to forward head posture (Upper Cross Syndrome anyone?).  So how do these muscles get tight and when do we talk about breathing?

We need to be familiar with the attachments of these muscles before we can understand why and how they are affected by breathing.  All 3 of these muscles have attachments directly on the thoracic cage.

  • SCM – Sternum and medial portion of clavicle
  • Scalenes – 1st and 2nd ribs
  • Levator Scapulae – Superior part of medial border of scapula

If we are breathing properly, we are using our diaphragm and intercostals to create a negative pressure to draw air into the lungs.  For many of us, however, we forego using the diaphragm and use SECONDARY breathing muscles (the 3 listed above, plus the pectoralis minor and upper trapezius) to achieve that negative pressure.

Our chest gets BIGGER and air is allowed to flow into the lungs.  Thanks neck muscles!!!

The ribs are drawn UP and EXTERNALLY ROTATED (think “rib flare”).  It’s like we are always inflated.  We can get air in, but we can’t get air out.

And what’s something we do to help us R-E-L-A-X?  We EXHALE!  It’s clearly a crappy cycle.


So think, if the average person takes roughly 16 breaths per minute, that’s 960 per hour, and 23,040 breaths per day.  And how did we achieve those breaths?  Through contracting muscles around the neck!  23,000 contractions per day, every day.  No wonder your neck hurts!  It never turns off!

So enter diaphragmatic breathing.  I’m not going to talk about it, since you can click to the link I posted above for more info.

But the takeaway here is this: Your body needs to learn to shut off.  We can’t be “on” 100% of the time.  We live in a world that thrives on coffee and electronic stimulation (I’m guilty, too).  Try taking 5-10 minutes every day and focusing on your breathing.  In through the nose, out through the nose or mouth.  Try the Breathe2Relax app for your phone.

We have to do a better job of allowing our body to rest and recover…or else we’ll always have a tight neck!!!!

Go Pack Go!

Images Courtesy Of:


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