Starting your day off with a painful, achy neck can really put a damper on your plans. Whether you're looking up to order a coffee or checking your blind spot on the way to work, this issue impacts many of your daily tasks. Fortunately, you can help ease some of that neck pain with a few simple exercises.
Exercises that target the muscles surrounding your cervical spine (neck) and shoulder blades are often effective in reducing your neck pain.
Common Causes of Neck Pain
Neck pain can be caused by a wide variety of issues, some more common than others. Arthritis in the neck joints or strain on the muscles surrounding the cervical spine are usually to blame, according to the Mayo Clinic. Disc herniations or bone spurs can begin to compress the spinal nerves which can also lead to pain.
Less frequently, acute injuries like whiplash from a car accident or systematic diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis or meningitis) are to blame. Try the techniques below as a starting point in relieving your neck pain, but be sure to contact your doctor if it's not getting better.
If your neck pain is the result of an acute injury, be sure you talk to your doctor first before doing any physical activity. If any of these stretches or exercises worsen the pain, stop and see medical attention.
1. Lift Your Head
As reported in a 2013 review and meta-analysis published in Physical Therapy, strengthening the muscles in your neck is an effective way to relieve pain in this area. The head lift exercise is a good technique for targeting smaller muscles, called your deep cervical flexors. These structures, which lie in front of and on the side of your vertebrae in the cervical (neck) region, support and stabilize the spine.
- Lie on your back and look up at the ceiling.
- Begin by nodding your head slightly as though you're giving yourself a double chin.
- Maintaining the chin tuck, lift your head off the surface slightly. Raise it only an inch or two off the ground and don't allow your shoulders to shrug toward your ears as you do.
- Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds, then relax.
Reps: three sets of 10
2. Prone Extension
"The prone extension exercise is a nice way to strengthen the shoulder blade muscles that help improve your posture and take some strain off your neck muscles," says Eileen Compty, a doctor of physical therapy and licensed athletic trainer who's worked with the United States National Speed Skating team.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms at your side, palms facing down and a small rolled towel under your forehead.
- Bring your shoulder blades down and back as though you were moving them toward the back pocket of your pants.
- Maintain this set position and slowly raise both arms up and back down again. Your shoulders should not move up toward your ears as you do this.
Reps: two to three sets of 10
Hold a small one to two pound weight in each hand if this is too easy.
3. Cervical Retraction
The North American Spine Society suggests the cervical retraction exercise can be helpful in relieving neck pain. It's another technique for targeting your deep cervical flexor muscles that can be easily performed any time you're sitting down. Try doing it the next time you're at your desk or stopped at a red light.
- Sit with your back against a support (ex. chair).
- Keeping your eyes level with the horizon, put two fingers against your chin and press gently as you move your neck back. Again, the movement should cause you to get a double chin.
- Hold the retracted position for one to two seconds before releasing. Make sure not to look up or to shrug your shoulders toward your ears as you do this.
Reps: eight to 10 reps three to four times a day
4. Sideways Neck Stretch
In addition to neck strengthening exercises, techniques that stretch out your cervical muscles can also be helpful in reducing your symptoms. According to the University of Michigan, the sideways stretch is useful for easing soreness and ache near your cervical spine.
- Sit in a chair and hold onto the bottom of the seat with your right hand. Holding this area is meant to keep your right shoulder from shrugging up.
- Lean your left ear toward your left shoulder until you feel a stretch in between your head and shoulder on the right side.
- When you feel a low to moderate level of pull in this area, maintain the position for 15 to 30 seconds before you relax.
Reps: two to four stretches on each side once or twice a day
You can add to the intensity of the stretch by using your free hand to apply a light pressure on the side of your head.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If your painful and sore neck fails to improve or begins to worsen after trying these exercises, it's best to speak to your primary physician. He or she may want to further evaluate your cervical spine or order imaging (like an X-Ray or MRI) to get a more concrete diagnosis.
In addition, tell your doctor if you have any numbness, pain or tingling that shoots into your arm, hand or fingers. Weakness in these areas should also be immediately reported. Each of these may represent a more serious health concern and more intervention may be necessary to relieve your symptoms.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “Neck Pain”
- Physical Therapy: “Effect of Therapeutic Exercise on Pain and Disability in the Management of Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials”
- North American Spine Society: “Cervical exercise: The Backbone of Spine Treatment”
- University of Michigan: “Neck Exercises”