3 Reasons Not to Do Neck Circles

Honestly, I thought that we disposed of the neck circles a long, long time ago. In every anatomy training I ever attended—college courses, personal trainer certification, yoga trainings—I learned that it is not a good idea to roll the head, especially backward. However, recently, I moved to a new city, and it seems that in every class I attend—yoga, exercise, or dance—I am invited to do neck circles. Which made me wonder: what is going on?

Anatomy of the Cervical Vertebrae

Below are some potential risks associated with neck circles, but first, let’s take a look at what the cervical vertebra looks like. Each one of us has seven (C1-C7). (Fun fact: Most mammals have seven cervical vertebrae, whether they’re humans, mice, giraffes, or whales.) In humans, C3-C6 are relatively similar in shape, but C1, C2, and C7 are unique because of their function/position.

Neck Anatomy and safe mobilization practices for the neck.

 

The body of the cervical vertebra (the bony part) is small relative to the vertebral foramen (the opening that accommodates the nerves of the spinal cord). The spinal cord is a long, thin bundle of nerves that extends from the brain and is enclosed and protected by the vertebral column.

Compared to the size of the cervical vertebrae, your head is fairly massive. It sits on top of the cervical spine like a fish bowl on the tip of a finger. Because of this arrangement, small muscles can produce significant effects by tipping the balance one way or another. And that is also the reason that multiple muscles and restraining ligaments guard the range of motion of your head, preventing it from going too far.

In your day-to-day life, you move your head in a very predictable pattern, which is also the safest. It is natural for your head to move in a linear fashion. Circling the head is not a natural movement for the neck. When you move the head in an artificial circular pattern, you override the protective mechanism that your body has in place.

3 Reasons Not to Do Neck Circles

Reason 1: Nerve Impingement

Because of its delicate nature, the spinal cord needs to be isolated from bumps and blows, the task accomplished by the vertebral structures and surrounding ligaments, tendons, and muscles. In addition, the spinal cord needs to be protected from the surrounding bony wall of the vertebrae themselves. The bony spinal canal normally has more than enough room for the spinal cord, but sometimes it can become smaller/narrower (called spinal stenosis). When that happens, the bony structures of the vertebra can compress or pinch the nerves, which will show up as weakness, numbness, or pain in the neck itself or anywhere along the nerve’s pathway.

Certical Vertebrae Stenosis and neck health, neck care and neck circles.

Why would it become narrow? There are several reasons:

  1. Some people are born with a spinal canal that’s narrower than normal, which puts them at a greater risk even from a minor neck injury.
  2. The effects of aging (thanks, Mother Nature!). Wear and tear on the spine can cause all kinds of degenerative changes, including disk herniation, bone spurs, and cartilage degeneration. Any of these conditions can narrow the spinal canal.
  3. Too much movement between vertebrae can cause the neck bones to shift and close off the spinal canal.

Here is the thing: you never know what’s going on in your students’ cervical spines. They might not know it themselves (many people have stenosis without any symptoms). Rolling your head back puts the neck in the most vulnerable position—the combination of hyperextension and twisting and/or rotation. For somebody who has spinal stenosis, this can lead to nerve compression and impingement.

Reason 2 to Avoid Neck Circles: Damage to Facet Joints

Your vertebrae are stacked on top of each other, and their bone protrusions fit together kind of like Lego pieces to form facet joints. Those joints move in a hinge-like pattern, and their surfaces are covered with cartilage to smooth the movement.

Anatomy of facet joints.

These joints allow flexion (bending forward), extension (bending backward), and twisting motion and prevent excessive bending and gliding movements between adjacent vertebrae. The spine is made more stable due to the interlocking nature of the adjacent vertebrae. These joints play a major role in preserving a “normal” range of motion. 

Since the circular motion of the head is not a “normal” movement and encourages the vertebrae to “glide” against one another, it can destabilize the facet joints and cause unnecessary wear and tear on the structure. This is made worse by the fact that these joints are weight-bearing, which makes them more susceptible to degenerative changes. Neck circles can cause further damage to an already degenerated cartilage surface. And didn’t we say earlier that spinal instability could also lead to the narrowing of the spinal canal? Doesn’t sound like a responsible thing to do.

Reason 3: Restriction of the Blood Supply to the Brain

Your brain, with billions of neurons, is an extremely active organ with a continuous demand for nutrients and oxygen. An extensive circulatory supply meets these demands through the internal carotid arteries and vertebral arteries. In the extreme case, a stroke occurs when the blood supply to a portion of the brain is shut off.

When you move your head back beyond the point of just looking up, you can put pressure on the vertebral arteries and, with that, reduce the blood flow to the brain. The situation gets worse if the arteries are clogged. The result is dizziness, maybe even loss of consciousness.

It seems obvious that neck circles are not safe and can cause all kinds of problems. Certainly, the likeliness of that happening depends on various factors: the student’s age, underlying spinal issues, the frequency of the activity, etc. But it seems that in this case, the potential risk far outweighs the potential benefit (neck stretching). And to tell you the truth, I am not a big fan of isolated neck stretches, even if they don’t involve head circles. I just don’t think that they are very effective. 

Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.

Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz— a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability, and medical history, specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.

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