A stiff, sore, or strained neck is an anatomical handcuff: You don’t want to move (much less work), you aren’t comfortable sleeping, and even tying your shoes can make you want to wail colorful expletives for the world to hear.
But if your head-holder hurts (and studies show that a majority of us experience some kind of neck pain at some point or another), you can get relief. Here are four common ways people injure their necks, with techniques for relieving that pain —and prevent it from happening again.
You Slept on It Funny
HOW YOU KNOW: You wake up feeling like you spent the night on Headbanger’s Ball rather than your pillow. Your neck feels sore and tight, like any other overused muscle.
WHAT HAPPENED: Sometime during your sleep, you twisted into a position that didn’t exactly mesh with your pillow. The muscles in your neck became overstretched—and stayed that way for a long time. As the night wore on, those muscles became dehydrated and inflamed, resulting in a painful contraction.
WHAT TO DO: Sit up in bed and begin gentle range-of-motion exercises. Rotate your head side to side 10 to 15 times. Be careful not to over-stress the muscles. They’re already tender, so pressuring them can irritate your neck even more.
Next, try some self-massage using your thumb and forefingers. Begin at the base of your skull and gently squeeze the muscles in your upper neck, gradually working your way down to the lower neck and finally the shoulders. Massaging the muscles will help increase circulation and relieve tightness. Top things off with a heating pad. “I recommend my patients apply heat for about 10 to 15 minutes,” says physical therapist Shae Hastings. “This helps relax tense muscles.”
HOW TO PREVENT IT: Place your pillow one to two inches under your shoulders, so that your head is completely supported, recommends Kathleen Marie, who teaches the Gokhale Method (a technique for helping people improve posture and relieve tension in muscles and joints). “You need a firm enough pillow to take up the space between your bed and neutrally aligned head,” Marie says.
A pillow between your legs will help further proper spinal position. There’s a natural gap between your knees, and when you lay down, that gap collapses. By placing a pillow in that space, the hips become parallel, which results in a decrease in strain and pull on your back.
You Have Bad Posture
HOW YOU KNOW: You feel a general soreness in your neck, especially toward the end of the day. Occasionally, you experience numbness and tingling down your arm. You may also develop headaches or find yourself shifting your neck back and forth to ease the pain
WHAT HAPPENED: Walking around with lumped and rounded shoulders and your head hanging low makes your neck sore. As the day wears on, a person’s posture gradually gets worse. A lazy neck results in tight extensor muscles (the ones in the back of your neck) and weakened neck flexors (muscles in the front). It can also cause cervical disc compression, which is what can lead to the numbness and tingling.
WHAT TO DO: Use light massage (see above) or heat to loosen muscles, but the best treatment to relive the pain is to sit and stand straight. “The back of the neck should be longer than the front,” Marie says, “which helps elongate the neck.”
HOW TO PREVENT IT: Good posture starts from the ground up. Make sure your feet are firmly placed on the ground, approximately shoulder width apart and parallel to one another. Your pelvis should be somewhat tilted with lower abdominal muscles activated. Marie suggests rolling each shoulder, one at a time, slightly up and then back as far as they will go and finishing with sliding your shoulder blade down your spine into a comfortable position. Next, position your neck directly over your spine.
You Strained It Lifting
HOW YOU KNOW: You feel the strain in the middle of some kind of lifting motion; the pain can last for several days, even for weeks.
WHAT HAPPENED: You may have extended the neck muscles past their typical range of motion, thus creating tears in the muscles that cause pain.
WHAT TO DO: Ice the area for 15 minutes to try and reduce inflammation. After the first day of pain and the initial inflammation, a warm pack may help relax painful and tense muscles. You can begin gentle stretches of the upper traps and levator scapula (muscles along the side of the neck), which are both known for tightening up in response to pain. “It is important to stretch these muscles because as they begin to lay down new fibers to heal the strain,” Hastings explains.
To stretch your traps, bend your right ear toward your right shoulder. Place your right hand on top of your head and give gentle pressure downward. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. To stretch your levator scapula, begin by pointing your chin in a 45 degree angle toward your armpit. Place your hand on the back of your head and apply gentle pressure. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat in the opposite direction.
HOW TO PREVENT IT: Whenever you lift something over your head, be aware of the position of your neck. Rather than extending your neck, Hastings recommends tucking your chin back as if you were trying to give yourself a double chin. “When you lift, you want to think about maintaining the curve in your low back while using your legs to squat and pick up the item,” Hastings says. “The item you are lifting should stay snug up to your body, and you should never twist your head, but turn your entire body instead.”
HOW YOU KNOW: You’re breathing into a paper bag right now.
WHAT HAPPENED: As stresses at work and home begin to pile up, so can the tightness in your neck. The great issue with neck pain? The more it hurts, the more we tense up -causing a vicious cycle of aggravating discomfort..
WHAT TO DO: Try the ice and massage strategies already described. And work on strengthening your deep neck flexors and stretching the neck extensors. In time, with the right amount of rest and effort, a person can regain proper balance
HOW TO PREVENT IT: Incorporate stretching and strengthening exercises throughout your normal daily activities, says Lori Romeo, a physical therapist who has been practicing for 28 years. One way: On a firm, flat surface, lay on your back without a pillow under you head. Gently flatten the curve of your neck into the surface and slightly tuck your chin. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat five times. Once this exercise has become easy for you, you can progress it by keeping your head in that same position and then slightly lifting it up off the mat, making sure that your head does not drop back or your chin protrude forward. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat five times.