Pilates-based tools to heal Lyme disease neck pain
by Shona Curley
For 20 years, I have been teaching Pilates—a gentle method of exercise that promotes flexibility and strength.
I became interested in using Pilates for rehabilitation work a long time ago, due to my own chronic neck and shoulder pain, which I only recently discovered can be caused by Lyme disease. It’s a relief to finally know the root cause.
Through Pilates, I have learned some wonderful tools to relieve neck pain. They help whether you have Lyme or not.
Using these exercises (and changing my diet) has completely resolved my neck and shoulder issues. It takes maintenance, but is well worth the savings in chiropractic and massage bills! My days of hitting a bump in my car and bursting into tears are officially over. I hope these tools help you as well.
Look up and out in daily life
Even people without inflammation caused by Lyme may struggle with neck pain, due to our collective lifestyle of staring at the computer and the phone. We look down way, way too much.
When we look down, even just a bit, we straighten out our natural cervical curve. We also tax our shoulder muscles, asking them to hold the weight of our heavy heads.
As I type this, I am looking out the window, not at my screen. I glance down to correct typos, then look back out. It makes me a better typist! Little changes like this affect your cervical (neck) health immensely.
Begin to notice the time you spend looking down, and play with it. If you are out walking, are you looking at the sidewalk? Try walking and looking at the clouds. It’s interesting how disorienting this can feel. It is good for the brain as well as the neck to mix it up and try something new.
Gentle exercise for neck flexibility and strength
This gentle exercise restores the natural curve of our neck, and strengthens our neck muscles in the areas most weakened by looking down. Anyone can do it, it is relaxing and slow. As always, listen to your body first – if something hurts or doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Lie on your stomach, with your head turned to one side. You can prop your head with your hands, or with a pillow, so that you are comfortable. It should feel like a gentle neck stretch, not sharp or intense. Relax as long as you like in this position, letting your neck soften and elongate.
When you are ready, slowly and easily lift your head and turn it to the other side, and rest there. Keep the movement small. As it gets more comfortable, take more time with the turning and lifting. Look over one shoulder, look out into the room, and look over the other shoulder before resting.
You can spend a nice, long, meditative time doing this, gently increasing your range of motion and your strength in neck extension and twisting. Before long, you won’t need to prop your head anymore in the twist. This exercise is gentle enough that you can safely do it every day. I teach this to all my clients, and every one has felt a decrease in neck and shoulder pain over time.
Use visualization to train your brain toward healing
The brain wires for habit. A focus on the sensations of pain strengthens the wiring patterns for pain. Creating a new habit for the brain is challenging, but so very worth it.
If you notice pain or discomfort in your neck, redirect your mind to visualize a stream of water running up the inside of your spine, from your tailbone to the top of your head.
Imagine it making space between your vertebrae, softening your muscles, effortlessly elongating your body. Focus on the feeling, enjoy it. If you need to, lie down so you can relax completely, until the imagery feels more natural.
Try doing this practice every single time you notice discomfort. (I did mention this was challenging, right?) Wire the habit of softening and elongating into your nervous system, and this habit will become stronger than the habit of pain.
With these three tools, you should be well on your way to swan-like posture and a soft and easy upper body. If you want a good visual, just check out the posh English in Downton Abbey. They never slouch! Truly impressive.
Shona Curley co-owns Hasti Pilates in San Francisco. She is also the creator of www.redkitemeditations.com, a site containing guided visualizations for healing Lyme disease.