How to stretch your neck more effectively

Using rotational movement to stretch neck muscles: lessons learned from Cranial Nerve 11
Click on the image to see this weeks video exploring cranial nerve 11
When I see the crazy neck stretches out there in video land, I cringe.

There should never be any forcing or strain when it comes to the delicate structures inside your neck and throat. That’s why I made this video.

This is part of my Cranial Nerve Sequencing series, in which I share little tidbits from this more somatic version of the Alexander Technique that I use with my clients when needed.

Understanding cranial nerve 11 is a huge help. Also called the accessory nerve, it has much to teach us about how to support our head, neck, and throat for optimum functioning and good, adaptable posture.

Your body is designed to flex and extend, but also to rotate and spiral.

The simple turn of your head alternately engages one side of your neck and shoulders while releasing the other. Understanding these complex relationships takes time but is well worth the cognitive effort.

Cranial nerve 11, or the accessory nerve, is purely motor. It has two main sets of rootlets, one which is cranial, and one which is spinal. They feed together and connect to the medulla, a structure in your brain stem, which relays signals to and from your brain.

It’s a real bridge between what we call “head” and what we call “neck.”

Here are two images to give you an idea of this complex arrangement:
image source unknown

image courtesy of Wiley

The cranial rootlets activate muscles of the mouth, throat, and soft palate, basically suspending the structures of your mouth and larynx from your skull. This image shows one of those muscles, the stylopharyngeus:

image source unknown

This group of muscles encircles your larynx, enabling it to and open and close, raise and lower, so you can swallow and speak. (Go to this page of Kenhub, one of my favorite sites for up to date anatomy information, if you want to take a deeper dive into this anatomy.)

The spinal rootlets activate your upper trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles to lift, turn, and stabilize your head. The upper trapezius is lighter orange muscle in this image:

image courtesy of Anatomography
The upper trapezius wraps three dimensionally around your neck, from the back of your head to the top of your collar bone in the front.

It suspends your collar bone from your head when it is resting. When it contracts, it will either lift your shoulder girdle up, or if you stabilize your shoulder girdle it will lift your head up and begin a sequential extension of the head on the spine, arching and extending the whole body as in the “cobra pose” from yoga.

Thus, the more mobile and freer your head and your shoulder girdle are in relation to each other, the easier it will be to breath, speak, swallow, and move in general.

Here is a brief outline of the detailed exercise I go over in this week’s video. I am exploring only the spinal branch of the nerve, for the sake of brevity!

To stretch the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius on the right side of your neck:

  1. Gently tuck the back of your right hand along the line of your sternocleidomastoid muscle on the right side of your neck. Fingers touch the mastoid process of your skull, base of your wrist will be close to your sternum and collarbone.
  2. Gently turn your nose and face towards your right shoulder, bringing your right collarbone towards your midline in opposition to the turn of your head. Allow the collarbone to release up off your first rib.
  3. Cup your left hand under your right elbow, and gently increase the forward spiral by engaging your left shoulder blade towards your spine in the back of your body.
  4. Your head will be spiraling to the right, your shoulder girdle will be spiraling to the left
  5. Release and walk, allowing the shoulder girdle and arms to swing

To stretch the left side of your neck, repeat on the other side.

It makes so much sense to me that lifting your head up so that it can balance above your body is connected via cranial nerve relationship to the activity of opening your throat and swallowing. One can’t happen without the other.

If you’d like to explore further, book a series of 10 lessons and we can go through the entire Cranial Nerve Sequencing process together.

2 thoughts on “How to stretch your neck more effectively”

    • That’s great Diane! It’s so important to understand the rotational aspect of our movement in order to move without harm…people often stretch their necks in ways that are very compressive for the nerves that exit the side of the neck and the discs between each vertebra. It’s a topic very close to my heart and I’m delighted that you found it useful.


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