What is 'surfer's neck'?...How I got surfer's neck and how I helped reduce the neck pain.
Let's be clear from the outset, I'm not a good surfer. It's safe to say I'm a much better physio than a surfer. I love it though.
The passion started in teenage years. First parentless holidays with friends. Heady, carefree long summer days in the company of equally carefree mates. Hungover days spent in the waves of Newquay in Cornwall with cheap bodyboards and ill fitting hired wetsuits.
No lessons and no google to understand what on earth we should be doing. At times when the surf was large i'm pretty sure we were a danger to ourselves. It could be an effect of time and a degree of romanticising but I think I can remember 5-6 hour sessions at a time just trying to catch a wave bigger than previously achieved or even better to catch the same 'monster' as a mate, looking across at each other with the same smug satisfaction of achievement and a moment shared in time.
When the swell settled, when we were unable to feel our feet or hands we would finally give in and switch efforts to finding high calorific food and booze. Typically this would take the form of a Cornish Pasty, heavily salted chips and numerous pints of Stella.
We suffered for our pleasure though and I'm not only talking about the hangovers. Aching limbs from the exertion, bumps and bruises from being hit by our board or surfers full boards when we strayed into waters forbidden by flags we ignored in search of the dream wave. It was at this time I started to be aware of having neck pain. It wasn't so very obvious at that time and I wasn't a Physiotherapist then so there was no mental diagnosis occurring.
Was it sun burn? Was it the wetsuit rubbing? Or was it the constant looking up trying to spot waves? Probably a combination.
There were other factors too. Sleeping in freezing tents and camper vans and the two horrendous rolled car crashes I was involved in around that time. What i did become aware of was that I felt more discomfort in my neck with each subsequent trip.
When I become a physio in my late twenties it wasn't hard to put 2 and 2 together and understand why I felt neck pain and what I needed to do to minimise it.
As a hopeless middle aged surfer (my wife would laugh her head off at the 'surfer' part of that) I now have to be really careful. It hasn't helped that I tried to make the transition from bodyboarding to surfing way too late in life.
So why does body boarding and surfing take its toll and cause neck pain for so many?
Well here comes the biomechanical explanation so strap yourselves in...
The number one issue is the position and pressure driven through the small boney joints either side of your neck called facet joints. Lying on a surf or body board spotting waves is the equivalent of looking up at the sky or ceiling while standing for all the time you are in the water!
The second main reason is the muscle groups in use for spotting, paddling and popping. These muscles are trapezius, particularly upper trapezius, erector spinae and levator scapulae. Yawn, 'So what?' you're thinking. Well they all have strong attachments to the neck and in particular around the facet joints which then suffer even more and neck muscle spasms and neck pain ensue.
Then there's those moments where it all goes horribly wrong! Being tumbled in a wave or misjudging a wave you want to get past. That jarring is equivalent to whiplash and can occur many times over in a single session.
What needs to be done?
These muscles need to be strong but equally or arguably more importantly they need to be a good length and stretched regularly. Then there's those pesky facet joints. They need to be reopened or 'decompressed' to relieve the pressure and neck pain. Below are some very useful stretches that should be done before, during and after wherever possible.
As a physio and neck pain sufferer I'm lucky in that I know exactly what to do. It's not easy to do it regularly and like everyone I get lazy about it. In addition to my own problems I see people in my clinic ( https://hertsphysio.co.uk/ ) daily with neck pain and headaches too. For them, myself and for wider communities like surfers I wished I could recommend a product to help with neck pain but the other ones look like this...
and for various reasons just aren't great.
So I did something about it. necksaviour is a super portable, easy to use, effective and triple award winning product.
There's a load more information here - https://www.necksaviour.com/
but in addition we are here to help if you need any more information.
As a footnote I was lucky enough to Visit Nazaré in Portugal just recently. The home of giant waves. A town and surf venue loved by the incredible athletes that are big wave surfers. These men and women are my heroes and being a Physiotherapist and having dabbled on a board I have no idea how they do what they do and can only imagine the toll it must take on them physically.
My physiotherapy knowledge and necksaviour will, going forward keep me in the water longer with less neck pain than would otherwise be possible. I'm pleased for that and the chance it gives me to keep dreaming (and exaggerating) about my surfing achievements!
Here to help if you have any neck pain, surfing neck or necksaviour questions at all.
- Brigitte Marshall