Our neck mobility seems to gradually get worse as we celebrate birthdays and suffer our share of accidents and uncomfortable hotel pillows. The garden variety pain or achy stiffness in the neck, categorized in the healthcare world as ‘nonspecific neck pain’ sends a lot of people to their care providers for some sort of treatment and medical relief. In order to best assess neck complaints, providers perform an examination of the spine. The physical therapist (or other provider of choice) will measure their range of motion (ROM), as in many cases one of the goals for patients with nonspecific neck pain is to improve the neck’s mobility.
Normative values for the neck’s mobility are memorized by clinicians during their respective education, so relative stiffness measured in degrees, documented and treated for hopeful improvements. For example, we learned in PT school that the “normal” neck flexes and extends about 60 degrees, rotates 90 degrees and side bends 45 degrees. But, “normal range of motion” changes with age, and thus ‘normal’ for a 20 year old is quite a bit more generous than the age-reduced ‘normal’ for a 60 year old.
Enter the work of Dr. Swinkels and his team of researchers from the Zuyd University’s Department of Physiotherapy in the Netherlands. They recently published a paper on their investigation on the range of motion differences in the cervical spine as we age. They studied four hundred people without neck issues and quartered the data set with 100 for each decade of age from 20 years to 60 years and in each quarter subgroup. Each subgroup also had an even balance of genders with 50 males and 50 females. The mobility of the neck was measured with a special cervical range of motion device called the ‘CROM’ (see Figure 1). Swinkels’s team crunched the nitty-gritty analyses of variance, linear regressions and even further dredged the data with Scheffé post hoc tests to investigate the differences in neck mobility between the decades of age and any possible relationships of age and/or gender.
As one may expect, they found that age does have a significant effect on active ROM of the neck. Table 2 beautifully illustrates the diminishing trend of neck ROM in healthy adults without neck pain. Recall the “normal” ROM for neck flexion we committed to memory was 60 degrees. This normal mobility of 60 degrees in Swinkels’s study was assessed as typical for 20-somethings, but each decade men and women evenly lose a degree or two, until the 50-something decade. 50 years and older, active ROM declines greatly in all directions except neck extension and side bending. Neck flexion on average is reduced 12 percent (7 degrees) to 53 degrees. Clinically this is relevant, as we in the physical therapy profession tend to council a lot of people on improving their stiff neck’s mobility. In all due fairness, the “new normal” should be on an age-adjusted sliding scale when goal setting for target neck mobility. ]
Raymond A. H. M. Swinkels, PhD et al. Normal Values for Cervical Range of Motion. In Spine. 2014, Volume 39 , Number 5 , pp 362 – 367.