Suffering from a pinched nerve in your neck is one of many injuries you can sustain in a culture where people frequently sit for longer than they should or stare at screens for many hours at a time. But don't think that you have to resign yourself to a life of neck and upper-back pain.
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With the right stretches and exercises, you can not only relieve the pain brought on by pinched nerves and other neck problems but also strengthen yourself to avoid any issues in the future.
What Is a Pinched Nerve?
You might be wondering what differentiates a pinched nerve from other neck injuries. The University of Rochester Medical Center explains that your spine is made up of many small bones called vertebrae, with your spine running through the center of them. Nerve roots branch from the spinal cord out between the vertebrae.
Any number of problems can affect these nerves and cause you pain — one common cause listed by the University of Rochester Medical Center is a slipped disk, when one of the soft cushions between the vertebrae slips out of place and pushes on the nerves. When you have a pinched nerve in your neck, you will feel sharp pain in your arm or shoulder, numbness or pins and needles in your arm, weakness in your arm or pain that worsens when you move your head or turn your neck.
To relieve or prevent a pinched nerve in your neck, make sure you're staying physically fit and using good posture, both when you're sitting at your desk at work for long periods of time and when you're going about everyday activities (particularly those that involve lifting heavy objects). If you're sitting for long periods of time, get up and move frequently. Your doctor might prescribe physical therapy or specific exercises or ask you to wear a soft collar around your neck.
Exercises for Neck Injuries
When you hurt your neck, stretches and strengthening exercises are important. Harvard Health Publishing emphasizes that physical therapy, range-of-motion exercises and strengthening exercises will make pinched nerve treatment more successful and that you shouldn't expect to have to undergo surgery unless the pain persists after six to eight weeks of therapy treatment.
In general, Mayo Clinic recommends that people with neck injuries cease doing anything that makes the compression feeling in their neck worse, and they should follow guided exercises from their physical therapist to strengthen and stretch the muscles in the affected area and relieve pressure on the nerves.
Although only your doctor or physical therapist can instruct you on the exercises that are right for your specific situation, the University of Berkeley recommends a few general stretches and exercises that will improve the flexibility and strength of your neck. Do five to 10 reps of each exercise two to three times a day:
- Rotate your head: Turn head from side to side, looking over each shoulder while keeping your head perpendicular to the floor.
- Bend head to the side: Stand with your face looking at the wall (or at a mirror). Bend your head to the side as if you were touching your ear to your shoulder. Hold for a second; then bend the head to the other shoulder.
- Bend head forward: Bend your head forward toward your chest, tucking your chin in as you go.
- Roll your shoulders: Shrug your shoulders up, squeeze your shoulder blades together and then roll your shoulders down and around as far as possible.
- Levator scapula stretch: Place a hand behind your head with the elbow pointed up and push your head toward the side of your chest opposite the hand you're using (left to right or right to left). Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with your other hand to the other side of your chest.
- Upper trapezius stretch: Drop one shoulder and pull the opposite shoulder to one ear (for example, left shoulder down, right shoulder up to your right ear). Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with the opposite shoulder/ear.
- Chin tucks: Recline with your head either flat on the floor or supported by a towel. As if you're nodding your head, draw your chin into your throat. Hold for 10 seconds.
Additionally, Harvard Health Publishing recommends improving your core strength, which will help your body support your spine and prevent neck problems in the future. Here are a couple of the exercises Harvard recommends for core strength:
Move 1: Chair Stand
- Sit in a chair, spreading your feet to hip width.
- Keep your hands on your thighs and flex your abs.
- Stand up slowly, exhaling as you do.
- Return to a sitting position slowly.
- Do one set of eight to 10 reps.
Move 2: Front Plank on Table
- In a standing position with your feet together, face a table.
- Flex your abs and bend forward so your upper body is supported by your forearms on the table.
- Position your shoulders so they are over your elbows; then clasp your hands together and align your shoulders.
- Step back on balls of your feet. Keep your back straight, without bending or arching it.
- Shift your weight to the balls of your feet so you are balanced with your body in a straight line.
- Hold for up to one minute to complete one set.