Surfer's Neck: a short-term injury that affects surfers around 40 years of age | Photo: Laurel/Red Bull

Neck strain is not a serious injury, but it can be quite uncomfortable and may keep you out of the water for a couple of weeks. So, what is surfer's neck?

The prone paddling posture puts a lot of pressure on your cervical muscles, and it compresses your nerves. If you're surfing for five, ten or twenty years, you'll occasionally feel that your neck's not okay.

"Pain in the neck" is, in fact, a very common surfer's condition. It is usually related with paddling, but neck pain can also appear after a wipeout.

Technically, what happens is that the muscles in the back of the neck, upper back, and lower back are in constant contraction, causing tension and muscular shortening of the trapezius and other neck muscles.

The neck is connected to the upper back through a series of seven vertebrae, i.e., the cervical spine - C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, and C7.

Between each vertebra, there's a disc that cushions the impact of movements or hyperextension. When we're paddling for a wave, the cervical spine is in constant motion.

Usually, the soreness will only arrive a few hours after the surf session, when the neck muscles go into spasm. However, the whole scenario can be more complex, as the neck ache involves a complex series of tendons, ligaments, muscles, bones and even nerves.

The sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM), a muscle that rotates the head to the opposite side, and flexes the neck, is many times, directly and indirectly, in the center of the discomfort, stiffness, and pain.

The problem becomes more serious when surfers reach the age of 40, and in weekend warriors that only stretch their office muscles on Saturday morning.

Neck: the prone paddling position in surfing interacts with a complex network of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and nerves

"The C5-C6 level is a 'fulcrum point,' or in other words, where the spine hinges into extension movement. This correlates with the paddling position - lying down and looking forward. As a consequence of long-term and repeated load, the joints can start to form marginal osteophytes or small bony projections," explains Peter Hogg, director of Noosa Sports and Spinal Physiotherapy.

"If severe, these bony lips can encroach on the nearby nerve roots and ultimately cause referred arm ache. All of these progressions are associated with neck pain, headaches, muscle spasm and restricted neck range of motion. Plain view X-rays will show the state of the joints and MRI will show soft tissue involvement including nerve root irritation."

The surfer's neck symptoms include:

1. Pins-and-needles in the hands, arms, and triceps;
2. Headaches;
3. Feeling of muscle weakness;
4. Back pain;
5. Nausea;
6. Numbness;
7. Stiffness;
8. Dizziness;

If you want to continue surfing into your 50s, 60s, and 70s, plan a few exercises that will reduce neck pain while surfing, and immediately after your sessions.

Paddling: keep your spine aligned and don't overextend your neck | Photo: Shutterstock

So, what can you do to reduce neck and shoulder pain?

1. Pre-surf warm-up exercises;
2. Reduce the extension of the neck while paddling;
3. Minimize the amount of time spent with your chest and neck raised;
4. Activate your abdominal muscles to create a firm paddling platform and take stress off the lower back;
5. While and after surfing, gently massage your neck to accelerate the healing process;
6. Remain flexible and perform neck flexion exercises, chin tucks, upper trapezius stretches, scapular squeezes, and thoracic extensions;
7. Tennis or lacrosse ball release exercises on the upper torso can help alleviate the tension in the area around the neck;
8. In the worst cases, localized injections will help relieve the pain;

For chronic pain situation, there are specific rehabilitation programs, and other options - hands-on treatment, Pilates, acupuncture, and massages will contribute to decompress all the deep muscles, tendons, nerves, and bones that make up your neck.

Surfing should not be a pain in the neck. Exercise your body regularly, and never forget the pre and post-surf workouts and exercises.

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