Physical Therapy for My Broken Neck–At Last!

cervical rotation to the right after a broken neck
Me doing my best to look right. This is as far as it goes.

June 2017, I broke my neck while trying to teach my kids how to play baseball. I spent 3 months in a neck brace to immobilize my neck. When the doctor decided that I was ready to quit wearing my neck brace, I asked about physical therapy.

He told me that he didn’t prescribe physical therapy for people in my situation. When I asked what would happen if I felt like I needed physical therapy, he told me that he would refer me to a pain specialist. Suffice to say, I haven’t talked to this doctor since that appointment.

And, like I predicted, the road to recovery hasn’t been as easy as the doctor believed. Immediately, I had significantly more pain than while wearing the neck brace. This makes sense because, after 3 months of inactivity, all of the muscles in the neck and spine need to start back up and figure out how to work again.

Since the style of Pilates that I practice is physical therapy-based, I did my best to perform my own therapy at home. Even when I was diligent, my neck was still in pain.

I decided to try acupuncture, and I had immediate pain relief. Since my acupuncturist is also my chiropractor, she was able to prescribe physical therapy for me. I held onto that script like a Wonka Golden Ticket, knowing that I would use it in 2018.

My First Physical Therapy Session

When the new year rolled around, I researched the local physical therapists and ended up selecting the one that my acupuncturist/chiropractor recommended. I chose this office because they perform dry needling. My acupuncturist believes that because acupuncture has worked for me in the past, dry needling will also be helpful.

I was so excited! Finally, after 3 months of feeling like I was going nowhere, I was going to get the help I needed.

My Assessment

I’m not sure if you’ve really thought about the impact of immobilization and the extent of the impact on your body. I thought that I had, but I didn’t truly understand until I went to physical therapy.

Naturally, the muscles in the neck and shoulders are significantly weakened. Then, I learned very quickly that the entire spine and core muscles are also greatly impacted. I hadn’t anticipated this, but the discovery seemed logical.

What I hadn’t realized was that the immobilizer made it so that I had almost no movement at C6 and T1, and C7 literally had no movement at all. C7 is such an important transition point for your spine. When it locks down, it greatly impacts the ability of other vertebrae up and down the chain to work correctly.

Because of this lock-down, my thoracic vertebrae were unable to help my cervical spine with rotation and other movement. This caused neck pain.

When I would look side to side, my head would stop at a point that caused me such intense pain that I couldn’t move any further. I had a different experience looking up and down and moving my ear to my shoulder. With those exercises, my head moved as far as it could and then stopped. There was no pain with any of these exercises like there was when I looked side to side.

Get Rid of Pain

The first order of business was to get rid of pain. This is accomplished by loosening tight muscles and encouraging correct movement patterns.

I won’t lie–I was really pleased that some of the exercises that they gave me looked just like Pilates exercises that I would do with my clients. And although these exercises were familiar, they were not exercises that I was already doing at home myself.

  1. Spinal rotation. They practiced this just like STOTT.
  2. Cat/Cow. Again, this is just like yoga and STOTT. For therapy, my emphasis needed to be on making the most of my spinal flexion and extension.
  3. Thread the needle. For this, you set up for Child’s pose and start lowering your hips toward your heels. Reach your right arm under your left until your shoulder rests on the mat. Turn your head so your right cheek is also on the mat. Stretch your left arm out straight and raise up on fingertips. Hold and breathe. Then, switch sides.
  4. Look right and left with a soft ball behind your head about 10 times.
  5. Tuck your chin toward your chest and press the back of your head into a soft ball. Do this about 10 times.
  6. Look up and down with a soft ball behind your head about 10 times.
  7. Put two lacrosse balls in a pillowcase or sock and use them to massage the occipital part (lower, back part) of your skull.

This is just a few exercises, but I felt a huge difference after the first therapy session. I practiced my exercises at home over the weekend and, when I returned the following Monday, my pain level was at a 0. Furthermore, it had been at a 0 all weekend!

Could This Fix Me?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get my full range of motion back, but physical therapy makes me hopeful. If they can get rid of my persistent skull pain in one session, who knows what else we will accomplish in our time together? Right now, it feels like the sky is the limit for what I can achieve.

Have you ever done physical therapy for an injury? How did it go? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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