If you have chronic neck pain or are recovering from injury, strengthening the neck muscles of the cervical spine is key to relieving discomfort and regaining mobility. Getting help with cervical spine exercises in physical therapy is always a good idea, but you can also do exercises at home.
If you experience severe pain or numbness and tingling in your arms, speak to your doctor before performing any cervical spine exercises.
Practice Good Posture
According to the North American Spine Society, poor posture is often the reason that symptoms worsen and move to other areas such as your shoulders and arms. You can control this by practicing good posture. That doesn't mean just standing up straight — maintaining good posture on a regular basis requires exercise to strengthen postural muscles and muscle memory.
Proper posture involves maintaining a neutral head position, with your ears aligned directly over your shoulders when viewed from the side. This orients the weight of your head directly over your spine, minimizing stress on the cervical spine, discs and ligaments in your neck.
The best exercise for good posture is simply to be mindful. Whenever you are sitting or standing, remain aware of your body position. Make these adjustments when necessary:
- Move your head back so your ears are in line with your shoulders.
- Roll your shoulders back and down.
- Pull your stomach in, but maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine.
Hold this posture for as long as you can — in the beginning, even this can be challenging. Remind yourself frequently to resume this posture, holding it for longer and longer.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides some other helpful tips for improving your posture. These include taking yoga or tai chi classes, which focus on body awareness; strengthening your core muscles; maintaining a healthy weight; and wearing low-heeled and comfortable shoes.
Simple Exercises Can Reduce Symptoms
The North American Spine Society says that simple exercises can help relieve pain in the C1 to C5 neck area. If you have pain that radiates from the neck, these can help to centralize symptoms to the center of the neck. If your pain is only in your neck, performing these exercises regularly could help eliminate the pain altogether.
Move 1: Supine Neutral Head Position
- Lie on your back either with your head directly on the floor or on a very thin pillow or folded blanket.
- Allow your head to fall backward so it aligns with your shoulders and hips as much as is comfortable.
- Stay in this position for five to 10 minutes. You can do this every couple of hours while you are experiencing neck pain.
Move 2: Supine Cervical Retraction
- Lie down on your back with your head in a neutral position.
- Tuck your chin as if you're trying to make a double chin. Keep your head on the floor.
- Feel a stretch in the back of your neck and a compression in the front of your neck.
- Hold for two seconds; then release and repeat the exercise for a total of eight to 10 repetitions.
Move 3: Upright Neck Retraction
- Sit or stand with good posture.
- Push gently on your chin with your fingers and move your head backward as far as is comfortable. Keep your face pointing forward.
- Feel the stretch in the back of your neck and compression in the front of your neck.
- Hold the position for one to two seconds; then release.
- Repeat for a total of eight to 10 repetitions.
If this exercise helps to reduce your pain, the North American Spine Society suggests performing it three to four times throughout the day. If it causes any additional discomfort, stop doing it immediately.
Perform Regular Strengthening Exercises
Neck pain often coincides with weakness in the muscles of not only the neck, but also the upper back and core. Including both strengthening and stretching exercises can encourage blood flow to the area to speed healing. These exercises will also improve your ability to function in daily life and make maintaining good posture easier. It can even prevent further injury to your neck.
Move 1: Isometric Strengthening
- Sit up straight in a chair with your back supported.
- Position your head in neutral.
- Place your hand on your forehead and apply pressure, while at the same time pressing your head forward with the strength of your neck. Try to keep your head in the neutral position.
- Push your forehead against your hand and your hand against your forehead for 10 seconds; then relax.
- Repeat three times.
- Do the same thing with your hand on the back of your head, attempting to press your head backward into your hand while maintaining a neutral head position.
- Press as hard as you can for 10 seconds; then release.
- Repeat three times.
- Place your hand on one side of your head and push against it, keeping the head in a neutral position.
- Hold for 10 seconds and switch sides.
- Repeat three times on each side.
Move 2: Prone Head Lifts
- Lie face down on the floor or a gym mat.
- Prop yourself up on your forearms and allow your head to hang heavy in front of you.
- Lift your head to the neutral position as you retract your chin.
- Continue to raise your head and look upward, feeling a stretch along the front of your neck.
- Hold for five seconds, move to a neutral, chin-tucked position; then return to the starting position with your head hanging.
- Repeat five times, two times a day.
Move 3: Supine Head Lifts
- Lie on your back on a gym mat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms extended alongside you.
- Raise your head off the floor, bringing your chin to your chest.
- Hold for five seconds; then release.
- Repeat 10 times, two times a day.
Move 4: Scapular Retractions
- Stand with your arms extended at your sides and your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Lift your chest and pull your shoulders back and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Hold the position for 10 seconds to start, working up to 30 seconds.
- Perform five repetitions, two times a day.
Move 5: Neck Rotations
- Sit or stand with your head and neck in neutral.
- Slowly rotate your head to one side as far as you can to feel a deep stretch.
- Hold for five seconds.
- Return to center and rotate to the other side.
- Perform five repetitions on each side and repeat two times a day.
Simple active range-of-motion exercises can also aid healing and relieve pain. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, simply moving your head in directions that don't cause you pain can deliver nutrition and lubrication to sore areas and movement of joints and muscles can send signals to the nervous system to block pain.
Is This an Emergency?
- North American Spine Society: "Cervical Exercise: The Backbone of Spine Treatment"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Guide to Good Posture"
- University of Maryland Medical Center: "Rehabilitation of Cervical Spine"
- Cornell Health Physical Therapy: "Acute Neck Pain"
- St. Luke's Health System: "Exercises: Neck Isometrics"