A Movement that Cures Whiplash?

There is no movement that can cure whiplash damage. The very idea is preposterous. The injured tissue, the holding patterns, the guarded carriage of the head and neck, all these take first and foremost, medical intervention, perhaps skilled chiropractic care, a neck brace perhaps, time and skill to resolve, while fully cooperating with a experienced professional, whether that is a PT, Osteopath, Feldenkrais practitioner, chiropractor or whatever.

Having said that, I am going to describe here, a little later, a single, very simple little movement that does an amazing job in gradually releasing the holding of the head on the neck, due to a whiplash. Many years may have passed since a person had their serious whiplash; I teach them this movement and within six weeks (if they gently persist with not-trying-too-hard to do this exercise) we usually see amazing changes, less headaches, a more quiet carriage of the head and neck, softer eyes, an improved mood, softer breathing.

Please do not be dismayed over the number of pages it has taken me to fully describe the movement. I assuming you are reading this because you’ve been tortured by an uncomfortable neck, ever since your whiplash, and have been eagerly hoping to someday find a cure. You may have found it here, but you need some patience, and the will to pay close attention to the instructions and related explanations. The movement is simplicity itself, once you learn it correctly.

I’ve come to believe that verbal, or precise and thorough written instructions  (rather than video or photography) is the best way to learn a movement. Movements in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) are communicated only verbally as well, you never at looking at videos or pictures to know what to do. You have to listen.  In any photograph or video, the demonstrator or model will always also be demonstrating unwittingly all his bad and good habits relative (or not) to that movement, many of which we don’t want to imitate. It may just be the expression on the face.  

Wearing a neck brace, will that help?  Of course they may be necessary, to protect the fragile neck while healing. But do we learn anything by wearing a neck brace? Any good and true and ancient healing method, like herbs, or educational exercise, or fasting or gentle yoga, or dietary changes will have a built-in educational component. Is there anything educational about a neck brace?

As it turns out, yes there is. A neck brace will encourage, if not demand, that the patient begin to mobilize his eyes more than his usual way. Mobile eyes are a wonderful somatic asset, and staring eyes, with compensatory over-active head and neck is a somatic liability. In fact, I’ve often reflected that Life may arrange to give a person a whiplash just to give them the experience of wearing a neck brace, to restore eyeball mobility.

So I am not opposed to neck braces, as long as the person is willing and able, later, to restore the natural movement of the head and neck, which is lost while using a neck brace. That is not so simple and involves a lot more than just learning to turn the head again freely and naturally. One needs to work with breathing, reaching, walking, standing, sitting, reading and more, since all these activities have to be addressed; they are all affected by the holding pattern violently imposed on the body at the moment of the whiplash.

 

Before Doing This Movement

  • Evaluate whether you have head-forward posture, and if so, how much. Ask a friend to look at you in standing or sitting, and evaluate how far forward of the center of your shoulders is your ear.
  • If your ear is more than one inch forward, you need to first work on correcting head forward posture, and that is described else where on this website. This gentle movement I describe here is just not possible when a person has too much head forward posture. The weight of the head is constantly being held; and that prevents the gentle effort this exercise demands.
  • If you have recently had a whiplash, and the tissue damage has not yet healed, with torn ligaments and scar tissue, etc., do not attempt this movement. This movement is only for after your tissue damage has fully healed.
  • If you read the directions and still cannot do this movement, or it seems impossibly difficult, see a Feldenkrais Practitioner privately; have him read this, and ask him to help you. Some people will need an exposure to the Feldenkrais Method, and private table work, to begin to do this movement effectively.
  • If you are ballistically gesturing with your head as you talk and listen, this movement won’t help you, until you learn to gesture instead with your hands and eyes, and with a quiet neck. The Alexander Technique is a wonderful way to learn to have a quiet neck. Some people actually don’t know how to say one word without a ballistic movement of the head, and often this movement is very tiny and very fast, and completely unconscious. You might ask a friend to tell you if your neck is quiet and head is unmoving as you talk and listen. That is what most normal people do, and we all need to get back to that.
  • And, of course, use common sense. If you have a medical condition that may affect this part of your anatomy, get the approval of your MD first.  

 

The Whiplash Cure Movement

If you’ve ever had a whiplash, especially if it went untreated, you absolutely need to learn this clever little movement. You can do it anywhere, practically unnoticed. Please read it over, as many times as it takes, to full understand all its many aspects.

  • Make a circumduction (or rotation) of the head on top of the neck.


That’s it. A shorter way to say it would be “rotate the head on neck”.


But one has to be clear and cautious, using this description, that one does not whip the head (as in rotation) around like a ball on a string, in a large, fast circle. That would be probably the worst thing, the worst movement, and the most forbidden and damaging movement you could possibly devise to “treat” a whiplash. You’ll be recreating the whiplash with its entire trauma and holding, each time you do that. If you are doing such a thing, whipping the heavy head in a circle, please stop immediately, and never again do that movement. Never! It is not a human movement. Diabolical is the only word that comes to mind. It is an extreme form of self-abuse. The neck is not designed for that.

Perhaps, yes, if you rotate the head VERY slowly, relaxing fully every quarter inch, in a large circle, releasing one muscle fiber at a time, relaxing into that while taking as long as necessary, and taking AT LEAST 3 minutes to make one circle, then it would maybe be OK, sort of, provided you were fully recovered from the accident first. But even then I’d recommend getting permission from a PT or MD first. You are playing with fire there.

Imagine a tennis ball on a stick, balancing there like that. Pretend the ball is the head, and the stick is the neck. If you put your hand on top of the ball, and made finger contact, then moved your fingers in a very small, relaxed circle, you are circumducting the tennis ball on the top of the stick. It takes practically zero effort in the fingers to accomplish this movement.

Please remember that.

We need to be clear about a few things:


  1. First, where exactly is the top of the neck? Without knowing this we can’t begin to do it correctly. The top of the neck is exactly half way between the ears. It is at cheekbone level, or nose level, and is FOR SURE is NOT (as many think) at chin level. It is crucial to know this. If you intellectually believe the top of the neck is at chin level you cannot do this movement correctly; it is not possible. Please, study the human skeleton, glance at an anatomy book.
  2. Second, notice that the directions did not say even one word about moving the neck. The neck does not move, not at all. When you circumduct a ball on top of a stick, does the stick move? No, the stick does not move at all. The neck is designed such that movement is so easy or so generously available at C1 and C2 that we can do this circumduction entirely there with no involvement of lower vertebra. That is where the magic of this exercise comes from. Yes, I know it, technically C1 and C2 are part of  “the neck” and when I say “the neck does not move” I am taking liberty to mean that part of the neck below C1 and C2. When the movement is done correctly, it does look and feel as if the neck, below that level, is entirely motionless. This is not to imply that in normal, healthy human movement that the rest of the neck does not or should not move or participate in whatever C1 and C2 are doing.  There should be such participation. No, please understand that this exercise is (so to speak) an artificial learning situation, to achieve the goal of relaxing long held unconscious muscle spasms.
  3. Third, what happens in a whiplash? The muscles at the base of the neck, and other muscles as well, grab and hold with such immediate force (during the moment of whiplash, to protect the brain) they are STILL holding tight even years after the whiplash. What we then see, in such a person, is a head and neck carriage that has adapted to this situation.
    • What exactly does that adaptation look like? It probably takes some Feldenkrais involvement to see such things. There is never any movement, not easy movement, at C1 or C2 as they turn their head or tilt their head. They are doing such movements lower down in the neck, and they are working FAR too hard at it. When those movements happen at C1 and C2, not below, they are very easy, almost effortless. Life has become an unexpected burden to such a person, as he is now constantly preoccupied with managing the weight and movement of a very heavy head, with very poor mechanical advantage. His neck will heat up from this constant effort and he will be slowly cooking his low brain (as explained in What’s Really Wrong With You by Griner and Griner). This dynamic means the whole personality can be slanted that way, as well. Life is not like it used to be, and anyone with a serious whiplash history will often repeat words like that. There is more depression and fatigue and cynicism and discouragement in the demeanor.
  4. Fourth, go with whatever movement presents itself.  Go with the movement that presents itself with minimal effort applied, whether that is small and jerky off to one side, or whether it is just a straight line, forward and back; do not expect to get a perfect circle right away. The instant you forget this, and try to make a perfect circle using will power, at that moment you are engaging too many muscles and mobilizing neck vertebra too far below C1 and C2. You have to accept whatever movement is there, take what you get; yes you have the lightly-held intention of making a perfect circle, but you follow the highway, once the rubber meets the road, so to speak. And you do that mindfully, and with full awareness and acceptance and patience.
  5. Fifth, you have to use less effort than you think, much less. Any idea of using will power will kick in the wrong muscles; that have long been compensating for the frozen C1/C2 area. You have to relax into the movement. That means, first and foremost, soften the gaze; do not stare. It is best to do this movement with eyes closed. You cannot do this movement correctly if you are staring. Breathe softly.
  6. Sixth, If this movement makes you feel like it is driving you crazy, honor that sensation; don’t force yourself to do it. In truth, you are revisiting the site of an old, and perhaps extreme, trauma. We cannot heal such a trauma by effort and will, unless correctly guided. So don’t push yourself to persist, when it feels like that. Do just 5 seconds a day; just make contact in the right way (as directed here) and that trauma will start to diminish, little by little, which is the only sensible way. If this is still an issue for you, please Google Somatic Experiencing (SE) and your city, and try to find a practitioner. They can very quickly help you heal the trauma aspect of your whiplash injury. Also read books by Peter Levine, such as Waking the Tiger, and also read Stephanie Mine’s We Are All in Shock and do her releases for the head and neck.


If you think tight muscles cannot release except by deep tissue work, or stretching, you are mistaken. There are many other ways. What we are doing here is just one way, being very gentle and relaxed and slow with the movement, it is almost like a mother’s touch, but we are ‘touching ourselves’, so to speak, with movement. Again, the movement is located at the base of our brain, top of spine.  Think of a feather-touch: it is that gentle a movement, that mindful a movement. You may think nothing could be accomplished this way, but if you continue daily (maybe twice a day) for some weeks, you will like the improvements. You may feel like your entire neck is “melting down” and “really relaxing like before the whiplash.”  For twenty seconds a day, that would be a nice result.

If you see a person do this movement correctly, you see very little movement. You see a look of intense absorption, and inward presence, and the person looks intently interested in what is happening. You know that you must not disturb then at that moment.

That is how you should look doing this movement; it is more about mindfulness than effort.


A whiplash injury has two aspects. There is the medical damage, the torn tissues that must heal. Then there is the learned behavior of muscles that won’t let go. We are dealing only with the second aspect here. Please remember that if you have just had a whiplash, and that means within the last six months, you REALLY need to see a medical professional. Feldenkrais is not about healing tissue damage! That’s a medical issue.

This movement has the capability, if it is done regularly and with skill, to release all the deeply help, grabbing muscles that have been tormenting a person for so many years. This movement is worth more than gold to such a person; it is a wonderful gift to go back to a life more like it was before the whiplash.

You’ve already got a description of the movement. Now you just need to practice.


Over the many years, I’ve discovered a few hints and perspectives that will help you as you persist with this magic and very gentle “exercise”:

  • How long to practice? Every day or two, 15 to 30 seconds would be enough. It should be never more than that. It is not about building strength or attaining flexibility by any kind of progressive effort, as in yoga or weight lifting. It is about reminding, very gently, the nervous system, how less effort is needed and to remember how it was before the whiplash. It is not about fixing anything using effort.
  • It helps in the beginning to wrap your hands around your neck as you do this. This will guarantee you will not be moving your neck below C1 and C2. For most people this is actually crucially important, since it is such a long-held compulsion to over-use the neck below C1 and C2.
  • A few movement guidelines:
    •  The head should stay facing forward at all times. Otherwise, you are making way too much effort and involving far too many muscles, and you are not helping yourself.
    • You can think of this movement as happening in a funnel. Your head rolls around in the bowl of the funnel. The neck of the funnel is like your neck.
    • You can imagine a laser pointer on top of your head, pointing to the ceiling. The pointer should be making a circle on the ceiling perhaps the size of a quarter. For this, again, you are striving to make a very relaxed, easy and small circumduction of the head on the neck.
  • In this exercise, you are trying to sense and move, the bottom of the skull on top of the spine. This part of our anatomy is exactly between the ears. The more intellectual and somatic clarity we can have about the exact location, the better we will be able to do this movement. Here are a few ways to improve this clarity-of-knowing:
    • For those who enjoyed high school algebra: Nod your head up and down, as in “yes”. The head rotates around an “x” axis. Next, turn your head left and right, as in “no”. The head rotates around the “y” axis. Next, sidebend your head (as people from India do). The head rotates around a “z” axis going through the nose, and at the level of the ears. The exact location of the intersection of the x, y and z-axis is where the top of the spine/bottom of skull is located.
    • Roll your tongue up and back as far as it can go. If it could go just a little farther back, it would touch this area.
    • Place your fingers on the back of your head, at ear level. Imagine that your fingers could magically go inside the skull about three inches, which is the location.
    • When you are sitting quietly with good posture, you might be able to sense the weight of the head resting on the top of the spine. This is perhaps a rather advanced somatic skill, as it requires keen sensing and a quiet nervous system. People who can do this, by the way, usually have no neck pain or trouble.    
  • Again, the harder you try to do this exercise the worse it will be. That’s because trying hard, or any use of will power and effort goes along with tensing your neck inappropriately, and that habit became pretty unconscious. Again, it bears repetition:  you must relax into this movement. Do it with your eyes closed.
  • Be patient. This may even take as long as 6 months. Do not give up. Twenty seconds a day is not much time to spend. The grabbing muscles will release layer-by-layer, week-by-week, and you must be patient. Do not think it is just the sub-occipital muscles we are releasing here; there are also nerve fibers, ligaments and facial tissues that can (and DO) hold onto stress and even tension (all tissues have cell walls, and cell walls can contract under stress). The cell walls of nerve fibers, in particular, can hold onto tension from a whiplash trauma for years, or even for a lifetime. You are giving yourself SUCH a gift to do this movement skillfully and patiently, twice a day for some weeks or months.

 

Finally, there is another way to understand this movement. As one of my mentors said, when working with a client on the table, you may feel like a certain part of a certain movement is like sliding over ice. That means they are not able to sense or pay attention to that part of that particular movement (whatever that may be), and therefore they RUSH through it. That is why it feels like “ice skating”.

She told me: what you need to do is move them very VERY slowly through that particular range of motion, using many variations, pauses and strategies, until their nervous system is able to go through that movement mindfully and SLOWLY. 

THAT is what you are doing for yourself in this movement. 

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com