The Cure for Belayer’s Neck

How to end neck pain now

Although “belayer’s neck” is not an official orthopedic diagnosis, it is an official pain in the ass—er, neck—for most climbers. We focus so much on avoiding injury while climbing that we often ignore the possibility of chronic injury from belaying or just accept it as part of the process.

Everyone has been there—back of your head touching the top of your back, eyes straining to see your partner, getting antsy, hoping he would just hurry up and finish the route so you don’t have to endure one more moment of that painful craning position. As climbers, we use the term belayer’s neck to refer to any pain in our neck or upper back, but there are many different actual diagnoses. Read on to understand the causes and find the prevention for you.

Photo: James Harnois

The Causes of Belayer’s Neck

Muscle Strain

When your head is stacked upright and over your shoulders, gravity’s impact on your neck muscles is negligible. However, when your head moves forward, sideways or backward so that it no longer sits centered over your shoulders, gravity pulls your heavy noggin down and nearby muscles fire in high gear to support your neck. Too much of this will lead to an overused, strained muscle, which can occur on the front, side, and back of the neck.

Facet Joint Irritation

Vertebrae stack on top of each other like blocks divided by little pillows, called discs. Vertebrae connect via the facet joints, which are located on the back side of the spine. When your head is upright, they have a nice space between them; that space increases when you look down at your belay device (known as flexion) and decreases when you look up at your climbing partner (known as extension). Looking up essentially jams the facet joints together.

Over time, these joints get inflamed and report pain to your brain. This pain can remain local, or it can worsen. The condition can progress to cause neurological irritation, and the pain will start to radiate below the initial irritation area down into your upper back and shoulders.

Nerve Root Irritation

Your spine houses and protects your spinal cord. Between each vertebra block, the spinal cord shoots off a nerve that exits the spine and supplies certain tissues (muscles, skin, bones, etc.) with other nerves that allow our bodies to move and feel. When there is inflammation in any area or another obstruction that interferes with this nerve’s pathway, it gets angry and lets your brain know by way of pain. Obstructions could include anything from inflammation to arthritic or degenerative bone changes.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS ) / Nerve Entrapment

When your muscles get too tight, they can trap nerves that run through or under them, similar to how your old or dirty rope doesn’t slide smoothly through your belay device. There is basically just less space available for the nerve to travel due to tightness or inflammation. An angry neck can trap nerves that run to your shoulder, arm, and hand.

How to Prevent It

A few problems can develop down the road due to repetitive belaying, including headaches due to muscular tension and joint irritation, and degenerative changes (arthritis). Being proactive is key. Try one or more of the following tips to avoid (or relieve) pain.

Change Your Footing

Changing the spot on the ground where you are standing will change the angle at which you look up at your partner, which will relieve stressed muscles. Depending on the climb or pitch, however, this may not be possible.

Motion Is Lotion

The more you move your neck around, the less your neck will hate you. Remain attentive for your climbing partners, obviously, but after a clip or during a rest, briefly mix it up. Look up, look down, tilt your right ear to your right shoulder, left ear to left shoulder, turn your head to the right and left. Changing positions regularly is likely the most significant thing you can do to avoid neck pain.

Get Some Balls

Two tennis balls in a sock (or one of these) may just become your best friend at the crag. Lie on your back and position each ball at the base of your skull under those meaty and often very tight neck muscles. Gently massage your neck with the balls or isolate areas and simply lay there on the balls to help those muscles relax. Pay attention to the type of “pain,” you experience: If it’s acute or unbearable, stop—rest and consider calling it a day. If it’s “good pain” like that of a massage working out general soreness and tightness, it’s working.

Take Breaks 

Would you hop on your project over and over without giving your body some recovery between each go? No way! Treat belaying the same. Small muscles are forced to do intense work over a long duration when belaying, just as your forearm flexors are on a climb. Between each belay, perform gentle stretches or use the tennis balls as described earlier. The break doesn’t have to be long—just a few minutes—but your muscles and joints need some time out of that jammed belaying position.

Try Belay Glasses 

We thought they were dorky at first, too, but you know what? They work. Throw a pair on, and you can stand with your neck in a normal position and still see your climber’s every move above. They work best in a gym or cragging scenario.