Upper Cervical (neck) Mobility Self Stretch

January 15, 2012

According to the Joint by Joint Theory of movement postulated by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle, every joint in the human body should have a combination of mobility (the ability to move) and stability (the ability to control that movement under position change) for optimal function. Joints need, and must have BOTH!

See my previous article on the Joint by Joint Theory on this link:


Each joint has a dominance of either (mobility or stability) depending on their role in the kinetic chain. In a perfect movement world (there is no such thing by the way); joints would maintain their given role in the system. Mobility dominant joints would maintain mobility, and stability dominant joints would do their thing. However, the wear and tear of just getting through stressful days, trauma, injuries, intensive workouts, poor posture, and the never-ending ilk of other bad karma the body has to compensate for just to survive makes this impossible.

Your brain and nervous system have one primary purpose, SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS! This system is the Master Controller that manipulates everything in your body down to the smallest micron in attempt to maintain balance or what we call ‘homeostasis.’ It must adapt to its environment 24/7 to maintain control, and it does not care how it accomplishes this task. Your body is trying the best it can at every moment to protect you from injury or harm. Sadly, the body’s ‘best’ is not necessarily the right choice for the long term.

Unfortunately, the body typically compensates in a short term rescue mode’ dysfunctional pattern that your brain and nervous system then hard wire into long term dysfunction. That dysfunction rears it’s ugly head later and puts a hurt on you when least expected with an alarm signal called PAIN! Hence, a possible underlying answer as to why a simple sneeze can destroy your back and bring you to your knees wincing in pain. The survival mechanism is not concerned about the future, it is only concerned with the here at now. The present! It deals with the current painful episode and worries about the repercussions later. So, in essence, your abnormal functional movement compensations will become your new normal! Until you teach it otherwise! How is that for a brain twister thought? 🙂

Ok, back to the neck!. According to the Joint theory your upper cervical spine (neck) comprised of the skull (occiput) and first cervical C1 (Atlas) and second Cervical C2 (Atlas) bones should be more mobile than stable. Lots of rotation happening up there. Or should be happening up there. Your lower cervical spine (the remaining 5 bones in the neck) should be more stable than mobile. BUT, most individuals have a neck where this pattern is reversed. This reversal contributes to poor movement and likely future injury and pain. When pain or tightness bites down on you, the first instinct is to fix the painful area. And rightly so! It is damaged and in need of help. So we may try to stretch, move, rack/crack and try everything possible to alleviate tension and stress in the lower neck while neglecting the upper neck. My question is, why is it damaged?

The secret is to increase mobility in the upper neck, so the lower neck can rest and recover. The lower neck is probably just hurting from too much work! It’s moving all the time because the upper neck is asleep at the wheel and not doing its fair share of movement. They are slackers!

Two primary factors decrease mobility; the first is soft tissue tightness in (muscle, fascia) also known in the therapy world as TED ‘Tissue Extensibility Dysfunction.’ A tongue twister way to say tightness! The second is JMD ‘Joint Mobility Dysfunction’ In other words, bones are stuck and not moving well. These typically go hand in hand with what I call the 1…2 punch. I always take care of both dysfunctions. JMD conditions if significant may require a healthcare professional trained in joint manipulation therapy to restore proper motion. Basically, that means, they move the joints for ya! 🙂

***Please consult your healthcare professional if any condition worsens with conservative self intervention or lasts longer than 72-hourwith rest.

The self stretch video below is very effective at reducing soft tissue restrictions and opening up that restricted joint with slight a distraction (separation) pressure. You can often experience dramatic positive impact on reducing neck pain, headaches, tension, and tightness in the neck with this simple maneuver. I teach it to all of my clients.

Here are some key bullet points to explain how to do the maneuver correctly and with precision. The video will demonstrate precisely what to do.

DO NOT apply too much pressure on the head. More is not better. Better is better!

DO NOT hold your breath.

DO NOT continue to stretch if you feel discomfort or pain that goes beyond 20-seconds

DO NOT perform more than the recommended sets and hold times.

DO perform 3 sets of 20 second holds.

DO maintain precision of movement with ‘forward and upward’ pressure on the back of the head. It is not a push forward movement only. Think about someone lifting your head off your spine.

DO follow the 20-seconds rule. Some stretches (like this one) may initially cause discomfort or pain. HOWEVER, it should fade or disappear within 20-seconds. If it does, proceed to do all 3 sets. If it does not, STOP the stretch. It is not the stretch for you.


See video below and try it out. See how it feels. You might just be surprised at how much this little maneuver helps you. Effective little sucker I can tell ya that. The simplest ones usually are in my experience. It’s just the understanding and learning you should look at this area for relief. Not every stretch works for every person or condition. But, you must try it to discover that answer for yourself!

If you like it and it works for you, share it with others. Help someone else feel better. That is what it’s all about!! And remember, don’t be tricked and deceived by the site of ‘perceived pain.’ In other words, don’t get ‘PUNKED’ by pain. It’s a tricky little sucker that loves to make you chase after the wrong things. More aptly put, STOP CHASING PAIN. Locate the ‘source’ and fix function!