Can't Turn Your Neck? These 5 Best Neck Mobility Exercises Will Help

man stretching his neck at his office desk
Doing neck mobility exercises can help strengthen and stretch the muscles to prevent pain.
Image Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/GettyImages

Waking up with neck pain and stiffness is no fun. Daily activities like driving, cleaning and working can be difficult if you can't turn your neck, which may lead you to turn your entire body instead of just your head.

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A stiff neck can be caused by a number of factors, including poor posture, stress, sleeping in awkward positions, a sports injury and even a pinched nerve or arthritis, says Rahul Shah, MD, a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon.

"This pain or soreness can also be accompanied by headaches, neck pain, and/or shoulder and arm pain," he says. Fortunately, doing neck mobility exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles in the area can help improve movement so you can turn your neck without pain.

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In fact, not moving your neck can actually prolong your injury. For example, those who have a whiplash injury are less likely to have chronic neck pain if they start an exercise program, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

"Stretches and exercises help strengthen neck muscles to avoid neck pain in the first place," Dr. Shah says. "Any activity that increases blood flow to all muscles can help with back and neck discomfort."

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However, before you start any new exercise program, it's important to see your doctor to figure out the root cause of your neck pain, Dr. Shah says. Once you get the all-clear, the following neck mobility exercises can help.

Warning

“Most pain in the back or neck should start to resolve within a few days to a week. If pain persists, then seeing a physician is advisable,” Dr. Shah says.

“Additionally, if the pain trickles outside of the neck or back and into the arms or legs with or without any associated tingling sensations, seeing a physician is recommended. Finally, consulting with a physician is recommended if the pain is associated with fever, chills, night sweats or unexpected weight loss. “

1. Isometric Neck Exercise

"Typically, I recommend beginning with isometric exercises," Dr. Shah says. "This results in activating all the neck muscles and primes them to engage in day-to-day activities."

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A November 2017 review in the ​South African Journal of Physiotherapy​ found that office workers who had neck pain significantly improved their symptoms with neck-strengthening exercises, such as this gentle isometric neck exercise.

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 10
Time 10 Sec
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back and neck in a neutral position.
  2. Place your right palm against the right side of your head. Press your head into your palm, and resist the movement with your hand. Your head and palm should not move.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat with your left side.
  4. Next, place your palms against your forehead. Press your head forward into your palms, not allowing any movement.
  5. Hold for 10 seconds.
  6. Finally, place your palms behind your head. Press your head back into your palms, not allowing any movement.
  7. Hold for 10 seconds.
  8. Do 5 to 10 reps on each side.

2. Neck Range-of-Motion Exercise

Dr. Shah recommends doing gentle range-of-motion exercises to loosen up your neck muscles. Go to the point where you feel a stretch, but not to the point that it hurts.

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You may find that your neck is stiffer in one direction. But as your neck improves, you will be able to move it further in each direction.

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 5
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Sit up straight with your shoulders back and neck in a neutral position.
  2. Slowly turn your head to the right, as far as it can comfortably go.
  3. Then turn your head to the left.
  4. Slowly look up at the ceiling, as far as you can comfortably go.
  5. Then, look down toward the ground.
  6. Pause at the end of each motion and keep your motion in your pain-free range.
  7. Do 5 reps in each direction.

3. Upper Trapezius Stretch

Your upper trapezius muscle runs from the base of your neck, across your shoulders and down your back. It helps with posture as well as head movement. Pain and tightness in this muscle causes a stiff neck, headaches and pain. The following stretch helps to loosen up your upper trapezius.

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JW Player placeholder image
Reps 5
Time 30 Sec
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Sit up straight in a chair, with your shoulders back and your neck in a neutral position.
  2. Place your left hand under your left thigh to secure it down. This keeps your shoulder down for an optimal stretch.
  3. Place your right hand on the left side of your head and gently pull your head to the right side. You should feel a stretch along the left side of your neck and upper shoulder. Stop if you feel pain.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
  5. Do 3 to 5 reps on each side.

4. Levator Scapulae Stretch

The levator scapulae is responsible for maintaining proper alignment of your neck, as well as elevating your shoulder blade. This muscle runs down the side of your neck and into your shoulder blade. When it gets tight, it can cause neck stiffness and pain, but doing this stretch can help loosen it up.

JW Player placeholder image
Reps 5
Time 30 Sec
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Stand up straight with good posture.
  2. Place your right hand behind your head, with your elbow pointing up.
  3. Gently pull your head down, at an angle, pointing your chin toward your right armpit.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
  5. Do 3 to 5 reps on each side.

5. Chin Tuck

The chin tuck is a great exercise for strengthening your neck extensor muscles, as well as stretching the anterior (front) neck muscles, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Those who have a forward head posture or sit at the computer all day should incorporate this exercise into their daily routine.

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Sets 2
Reps 15
Time 2 Sec
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back and your neck in a neutral posture.
  2. Place two fingertips on your chin.
  3. Gently press into your chin, guiding your neck into a tucked position.
  4. Hold for 2 seconds and return to the starting position.
  5. Do 1 to 2 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

4 Tips to Help Prevent Neck Pain

In addition to doing the neck exercises above, the following tips will also help improve neck pain and decrease stiffness.

1. Apply Heat and Ice

Apply ice for the first day or two to decrease inflammation, then switch to a heating pad to increase blood flow to the muscles to help speed up healing, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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A warm shower is another good way to decrease pain and stiffness. In fact, you can do some of the exercises above in the shower. Over-the-counter pain relievers, including ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can also be helpful.

2. Maintain Good Posture While Sitting

"As many new home office setups consist of lounge chairs, couches or kitchen tables, we are unfortunately not practicing healthy posture," Dr. Shah says.

"Try to keep your gaze between 15 and 45 degrees off of the horizontal plane," he says. "This allows the head to assume a more normal posture over the neck and avoids excessive muscle fatigue. Work on keeping your shoulders back and avoid craning your neck forward as this will work to increase the load on your neck muscles."

He also says it's important to make sure your keyboard and mouse are level with your forearms to avoid irritating the nerves that run from your neck down to your hands. Take short breaks throughout the day and stand up or change positions every 25 to 45 minutes.

3. Adjust Your Sleeping Position

If you're waking up with a stiff neck, your sleeping position may be a factor. "The head, neck and shoulders should be aligned while you sleeps," Dr. Shah says.

"For those who sleep on their side, having a pillow between your knees can be helpful," he says. "Additionally, some may also experience benefits from using a pad cutout for your head, allowing your neck to be better supported."

If you sleep on your stomach, having the right neck support while sleeping can help. Those who sleep on their backs can test different pillows and cushions that allow their knees to have a slight bend, which can help, Dr. Shah says.

4. Consider a Massage

A massage can help increase blood flow to painful neck muscles, as well as release tension and help with stress and anxiety.

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