Whether you're cycling for sport, recreation or transportation, your ride should not be "a pain in the neck." Making minor changes to your frame, saddle position, handlebars or even your helmet can correct technical problems that lead to neck pain. Poor postural habits can also contribute to neck pain, but they are easily corrected with deliberate practice and stretching.
Prevent Precarious Posture
The three root causes of upper back and neck pain from cycling include poor body positioning, poor bike fit and overuse of muscles in your upper back. Physical therapist Angie Vitale, MS, PT of Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan explains on the Detroit Medical Center website that cycling typically places your body in a position where your back is rounded forward and your neck is hyperextended with your chin tilted upward. This unnatural posture can cause your neck muscles to become short and tight, restricting blood circulation and creating painful muscle spasms. For best biking posture, your handlebars should be shoulder-width apart and level with your seat. Your helmet should fit snuggly so that it does not obscure your vision, which causes further neck hyperextension.
Seek Superior Sizing
Sizing your bike to fit your body can make a significant difference in your positioning and muscle mechanics. Performance Bicycles lists saddle height, saddle fore-aft position and handlebar position as the three critical points of adjustment. Adjust your saddle height so that at the bottom of your downstroke, your leg has a 10- to 20-degree bend at the knee. Adjust the fore-aft position of the saddle so that when your knee is at the three o'clock position, a plumb line dropped from the bottom of your knee bisects the pedal in the middle. Adjust your handlebars so that when you sit on the seat and rest your hands on the brake casings, the front wheel hub is obscured from vision by the handlebars and your back is at a 45-degree angle.
Relax Rigid Riding
Ron Fritzke, DC, chiropractor for the College of Siskiyous sports medicine team, recommends you keep your muscles loose and flexible, and your upper back muscles relaxed to allow adequate blood circulation when riding. Avoid hyperextending your elbows, as this can increase the amount of shock you absorb with your neck and back muscles. Do not ride in a 'laid out' position with your upper body near parallel to the ground, forcing your neck to hyperextend and increasing compression of the nerves, arteries and muscles in your upper back and neck. At the end of your ride, take a moment to stretch. Dr. Fritzke recommends neck flexion and extension, drawing your chin to your chest and then looking up; neck rotation, turning your chin to the right and then to the left; and lateral flexion, lowering your right ear to your right shoulder and then the left ear to left shoulder.
Execute Easing Exercises
In addition to stretching the muscles of the upper back, Dr. Fritzke suggests performing reverse shrugs and elbow presses to increase circulation. For reverse shrugs, stand erect and draw your shoulders upward toward your ear and then push them backward and downward behind you. For elbow presses, point your elbows out to the sides at shoulder height and draw them backward as far as possible, contracting the upper back muscles. Return to your start position. Repeat until your upper back muscles begin to "burn."