At some point in your life, you’re likely to suffer from neck pain. Poor posture, arthritis, improper workout form, and stress can all contribute to neck pain, which will affect about two-thirds of people at some point in their lives.
“Sometimes you’re not doing anything wrong; it is just that you are genetically predisposed to arthritis or other problems,” says Armin Tehrany, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in New York City and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care. Fortunately, there are a number of tips, stretches, and neck exercises you can perform that may strengthen, loosen, and even help improve function.
But the neck is high-maintenance. It contains a number of muscles and joints, is responsible for a large range of motion, and houses nerves that run between your brain and your arms, legs, and organs. So take special care when following the neck exercises below.
4 Neck Exercises to Prevent and Relieve Pain
Whether you tweaked it by sleeping in an awkward position, or you spent too many hours hunched over your computer, or it’s just the result of stress, “neck pain will usually resolve within a few days to a week,” says Tehrany. “If it’s getting worse, or if you have weakness or tingling, pain, burning, or numbness radiating down your arms, see a doctor.
In the meantime, these neck exercises may provide some relief if you’re suffering from pain and/or stiffness.
Not what you think of when you envision neck exercises? A study in the journal BioMed Research International found that office workers who performed up to 2 minutes of lateral raises five times a week had 40 percent less back and shoulder pain after 10 weeks than people who only received general information on workplace health.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart holding a pair of light dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in (you can substitute with a resistance band).
- Keeping your back flat and your chest lifted, raise your arms out to your sides (targeting mid-back scapular retraction) until they’re parallel with the floor.
- Slowly lower your arms, and repeat for 15 reps, or until fatigued.
Sixty percent of people with moderate to severe neck pain share a common, muscle-kinking forward head posture (in which your chin juts out ahead of your body). According to Tehrany, when your head moves forward, the muscles along the back of your neck can shorten while the ones in front get overstretched. Neck exercises like the chin tuck can help counteract this.
- From a standing or seated position, maintain an erect upper-body posture with your arms at your sides.
- Keeping your back straight and your chest up, draw your chin back without dropping it toward your chest, so you can feel your spine lengthening (you should feel a stretch through the back of your neck as you do it).
- Hold for 2 seconds then release and repeat 8–10 times or until fatigued.
Roll it out
When you have a stiff neck, you’ll often also feel tightness in your upper and middle back. Try this move daily to counteract slouching and improve mobility in your thoracic spine (the area between your neck and low back).
- Lie back on a foam roller with your knees bent and the roller aligned with the bottom of your shoulder blades. Place your fingertips gently behind your ears.
- Breathe deeply for 60–90 seconds as you slowly roll from the top of your shoulders down to your lower back.
- Lift your hips and scan for tender spots, then repeat.
You can also place a tennis or lacrosse ball against your back near the top of your shoulder blade, and lean against a wall or lie on the floor. Move around or adjust the ball until you hit a tender spot, then rest there with as much body weight against it as you can tolerate for 30–60 seconds. Then switch the ball to the other side and repeat.
A research review published in the journal PLoS One found that acupressure (massaging traditional acupuncture points) is helpful in treating chronic neck pain. Try these points to ease tension:
– Press the thumb of your right hand on the webbing between your left thumb and index finger and put your right index finger underneath to squeeze the muscles. You should feel an achy sensation. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.
– Next, place your fingers of both hands on either side of your spine at the base of your skull. Slide them out to the side about an inch (you should feel them fall into a trough as you drop off the muscle). Press deeply here and hold for 30 seconds.
7 Tips for Managing Neck Pain
Besides neck exercises, there are other means of treatment. Try any or all of the following strategies for proper neck pain relief.
1. Apply heat treatment
If your neck feels sore, tight, or stiff, place a heating pad on it for 10–15 minutes. “You want to use heat for sore muscles, especially in the morning because you’ve usually slept with your neck in the same position for 8 hours,” says Tehrany. (If you’ve had the air conditioner running all night, heat can be especially helpful to your neck muscles the next morning.)
2. Set an inactivity alarm
If you sit all day at a desk or in front of a computer, Tehrany suggests taking hourly stretch breaks (and while you’re at it, walk around for 5 minutes too). Then stretch your neck: Gently lower your ear to one shoulder, then bring your chin to your chest, over to the other side, and then to the back. Complete 2–4 circles in each direction.
3. Tighten your midsection
“A strong core is the best prevention for neck pain,” says Tehrany. Weak torso muscles can contribute to that office slouch. When your chest caves in and your back rounds, your neck and head tilt back, putting extra strain on the muscles along your spine, and overstretching the muscles along the front of the neck. A simple plank is a good way to boost core strength without any fancy equipment.
4. Audit your posture
While standing upright, you should be able to draw a straight line from your ear down through your shoulder, hip, and ankle. Next time you’re in front of a mirror, eyeball your form as you reset your posture: Pull your head back (don’t tilt it up), draw your shoulders back and down as you draw your navel in toward your spine, and tighten your glutes.
Notice how that feels so you can replicate it when you’re standing in line, or driving, or sitting at your desk. Repeat this as many times a day as you can remember to do so; eventually, it will become second nature. Neck pain can be caused by muscle imbalances in the lower body too. A qualified personal trainer or physical therapist can check your posture to identify any potential issues.
5. Go hands-free
There’s no reason to still be cradling your phone between your ear and shoulder, which can put a serious kink in your neck. Invest in a headset if you use a landline phone, or pick up a Bluetooth earpiece or microphone-enabled earphones for your cell, unless you want to be known as the person who uses speakerphone at the office (hint: you don’t).
6. Take it easy in yoga
All of that stretching is great for your body and mind, but some poses require you to turn your neck or lift your head to extreme degrees, which can trigger pain. Always wait until you’re adequately warmed up before moving into any extreme ranges of motion. If a pose hurts or feels challenging for your neck, ease off. Nobody will kick you out of class if you don’t look up at the ceiling in triangle pose (especially if you’re doing Beachbody Yoga Studio at home by yourself).
7. Get an advanced head rub
Sometimes a massage is worth it: A study in the Clinical Journal of Pain showed that almost 80 percent of people with chronic neck pain who tried craniosacral therapy — a type of manual therapy that focuses primarily on the head and spine— saw a 50 percent reduction in neck pain after 8 weeks.