Altered activation of the deep cervical flexors (longus colli and longus capitis) has been found in individuals with neck pain disorders but the response to training has been variable. Therefore, this study investigated the relationship between change in deep cervical flexor muscle activity and symptoms in response to specific training.
Fourteen women with chronic neck pain undertook a 6-week program of specific training that consisted of a craniocervical flexion exercise performed twice per day (10 to 20 min) for the duration of the trial. The exercise targets the deep flexor muscles of the upper cervical region. At baseline and follow-up, measures were taken of neck pain intensity (visual analogue scale, 0 to 10), perceived disability (Neck Disability Index, 0 to 50) and electromyography (EMG) of the deep cervical flexors (by a nasopharyngeal electrode suctioned over the posterior oropharyngeal wall) during performance of craniocervical flexion.
After training, the activation of the deep cervical flexors increased (P<0.0001) with the greatest change occurring in patients with the lowest values of deep cervical flexor EMG amplitude at baseline (R2=0.68; P<0.001). There was a significant relationship between initial pain intensity, change in pain level with training, and change in EMG amplitude for the deep cervical flexors during craniocervical flexion (R2=0.34; P<0.05).
Specific training of the deep cervical flexor muscles in women with chronic neck pain reduces pain and improves the activation of these muscles, especially in those with the least activation of their deep cervical flexors before training. This finding suggests that the selection of exercise based on a precise assessment of the patients’ neuromuscular control and targeted exercise interventions based on this assessment are likely to be the most beneficial to patients with neck pain.