What Is Military Neck?
A healthy neck has a “C” curve (lordosis) when you see it from the side and the curve rolls forward from the bottom of the cervical spine and curves back again halfway up to the head. There is approximately 30 to 40 degrees of curve in the healthy neck. Taking its name from the idea that military people stand perfectly straight and tall, “military neck” is a slang term for the loss of the “C” curve in the neck. Military neck is also known as cervical kyphosis or straight neck. In rarer forms, a backwards curve develops in the neck.
Why Do I Need A Curved Neck?
Nature provided us with a varying curved spine because we walk upright on two legs. Because gravity continually pushes down on us, the force of gravity and the weight of our own bodies transmits a downward force through a vertical line through our heads to our feet. If all our bones were aligned perfectly straight in a vertical line, we’d would be unable to sustain much shock without soft tissue and bone damage. Thus, we need a system of shock absorption as we stand or move to dissipate that downward force.
A curved spine, including concave curves in our low backs and necks and a convex curve in our upper thoracic spine, helps absorb gravitational force on our bodies. The spine also has cartilaginous discs in between spinal bones to help absorb shock. This system works well while normal curves remain. Once a curve deteriorates or straightens, the force of gravity on our bodies eventually tends to degenerate or wear away the soft and hard tissue. This can cause pain by itself or it can contribute to pain when spinal bones pinch nerves leaving the central nervous system as peripheral nerves. In terms of the domino effect, malalignment of the spine contributes to unlevelling the pelvis, sacrum, scoliosis of the spine, and offsetting of the head and neck.
Causes Of Military Neck
We can point to a number reasons why people lose their cervical lordotic curve resulting in military neck. Of these, there are causes, contributing factors, and resulting factors to be aware of.
- Genetic factors
- Whiplash injury
- Post-traumatic head injury
- Posture (forward-head/neck or poor sitting posture)
- Occupation (repetitive or constant forward-bending of neck/head)
- Stomach sleeping (head and neck turned to the side)
- Compression fractures of vertebral body
- Degenerative disease (of bone or vertebral discs)
- Spinal inflammation or infection
Problems Related To Military Neck
The biggest problem seems to be the earlier onset of degeneration in spinal discs. Much like any slow degenerating process of organ systems, you probably won’t see it coming for awhile. For people who have a loss of neck curve from functional causes, degeneration and pain may not appear for several years. If you were born with a straight neck, on the other hand, you may not see problems stemming from loss of cervical lordosis until your older years when disc degeneration becomes part of the ordinary aging process.
Once spinal joints begin to break down and degenerate, other soft tissue in the joints become affected. Inflammation can affect the spinal nerves and cause further shifting of neighboring vertebrae, forcing discs to bulge to one side. The inflammation affecting nerves may cause pain wherever the nerves go or compress them, reducing sensation in the arms, neck, and head. Doctors call it peripheral or cervical neuropathy.
In some people, straight neck is complicated by posture of the neck atop the thorax. The normal curve bends the cervical spine forward from the junction where the cervical spine meets the thoracic spine. In some people, the cervical spine continues straight upward. In others, the entire cervical spine leans forward from the junction, giving the “leaning tower of Pisa” appearance to the cervical portion of the spine. The degree to which the straight neck leans forward is where the complication appears. Because the head is no longer in a direct line over the thorax, muscles in the back of the neck and upper back must strain in order to pull the entire cervical and cranial structure back, like guy-wires (see Upper Crossed Syndrome elsewhere on this website).
Can The Cervical Curve Be Restored?
Most manipulative authors have had between good and great success restoring the lordotic curve in people whose military neck developed from injury or postural habit. All of these professionals concur that restoring the curve can be a long process if losing the curve was a long time coming. Sudden injury-caused military neck is likely caused by muscle spasm or protective muscle guarding and can thus be resolved by first resolving the soft tissue aspects of the injury.
This assumes, of course, that the spasm or guarding is not protecting the skeleton or central nervous system (CNS) from impending damage if muscles are relaxed. Minor fractures in or injurious displacement of the vertebral bones can easily cause muscle guarding and relaxing those muscles could endanger the bones. The brain will do whatever it can to protect the bones and CNS.
While many conventional medical doctors may be forwardthinkers and refer military neck patients to a manipulative doctor or therapist, most will more likely get x-rays to make sure there is no evidence of structural damage, then prescribe NSAIDs (or stronger drugs) and muscle relaxers. They go with what they know — addressing the symptoms, not the cause.
Military neck, straight neck, or cervical kyphosis is a loss of curvature in the neck. There may be a functional or structural loss of curvature. Having a straight neck isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the structure of the neck tends to degenerate more quickly in people who have lost the natural neck curve. Functional military neck is usually fixable with manual therapy. However, results tend to take longer in people who lost their curve a longer time ago. The main cause of functional loss of cervical lordosis is a traumatic shock to the cervical spine, usually whiplash.