If you have pain or a knot in your neck, you're not alone. In fact, about two-thirds of people will experience neck pain during their lifetimes, according to a December 2013 study published by the International Journal of Health Sciences & Research.
Muscle knots are officially called trigger points or muscle spasms. These knots can develop after trauma, such as whiplash, a car accident or a fall. However, they might also appear "out of nowhere."
Poor posture can contribute to the development of a knot in your neck. Texting and working at a desk often lead to sitting with your head down and shoulders rounded forward for prolonged periods of time. Stretches can help counteract the effects of poor posture and reduce tension from muscle knots.
1. Range-of-Motion Stretches
Stretching increases flexibility at the end range — the point at which you can't move your neck any farther in a particular direction. Applying additional pressure to active range-of-motion exercises can help decrease tightness from muscle knots.
Sit up straight with your shoulder blades pulled down and together to put your spine in proper alignment when performing these exercises. Hold each end-position for three to five seconds. Repeat each movement three times.
Move 1: Cervical Rotation
- Slowly turn your head to the right as far as possible, looking over your shoulder.
- Gently press on your left cheekbone until you feel a stretch in muscles on the left side of your neck.
- Repeat this exercise, rotating to the left.
Move 2: Side-Bending (Lateral Flexion)
Tilt your right ear down toward your right shoulder.
Reach overhead with your right hand, and gently pull your head closer to your shoulder
until you feel a stretch in the muscles on the left side of your neck.
Repeat on the left side, using your left hand to apply the additional stretch.
Move 3: Chin Tucks
- Place one or two fingers on the front of your chin.
- Gently press on your chin and pull your head backward as if you are making a "double chin."
- Stop when you feel a stretch in the muscles in the back of your neck. Be sure not to tilt your head up or down during this movement.
Move 4: Cervical Extension
Cervical extension — tipping your head backward — helps stretch tight muscles in the front of your neck. Unlike other stretches, do not use your hands to add pressure to this movement. This could increase risk of damaging structures in your spine.
- Perform a chin tuck.
- From this position, look up toward the ceiling and tilt your head backward until you feel a stretch along the muscles in the front of your neck.
2. Stretches for Specific Muscles
Perform these stretches while sitting in a chair so you can use your hands for leverage. Sit up tall with your shoulder blades pulled together during the movements. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat three times on each side.
Move 1: Upper Trapezius Stretch
The upper trap muscle runs from the base of your skull, across the tops of your shoulders. Knots commonly develop in this muscle.
- Grip the side of the chair near your thigh, with your right hand.
- Bring your chin toward your chest while tilting your left ear toward your left shoulder.
- Reach overhead with your left hand. Gently pull your head to the left to intensify the stretch.
- Hold the stretch when you feel a strong pull at the back of the right side of your neck and across the top of your right shoulder.
- Switch hand positions, and repeat to stretch the left upper trapezius.
Move 2: Levator Scapulae Stretch
The levator scapulae muscle originates on the sides of vertebrae in your upper neck and attaches to the tops of your shoulder blades on each side of the body.
- Grip the side of the chair with your right hand.
- Tip your left ear toward your left shoulder and drop your chin toward your chest. At the same time, turn your head until your nose is pointed toward your left armpit.
- Reach overhead with your left hand and gently pull your head closer to your armpit until you feel a stretch on the right side of the back of your neck.
- Repeat on the right side by gripping the chair with your left hand and reaching overhead with your right hand.
Move 3: Pectoral Corner Stretch
Although the pectoral muscles are in your chest, tightness in these muscles can lead to a forward head posture. This posture increases tension on the neck muscles, which can lead to knots.
- Stand facing a corner with your feet staggered.
- Raise your arms to shoulder height and rest one forearm on each wall.
- Slowly shift your weight over your front leg and lean into the corner until you feel a stretch across the front of your shoulders and chest.
3. Trigger-Point Release
In addition to stretches, a knot in the neck can be treated with trigger-point release, also called ischemic compression — a technique you can perform on yourself, as the Cleveland Clinic notes.
According to a September 2018 study published by the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, this method was found to be effective for treatment of knots in the upper trapezius muscles on the sides of the neck and the suboccipital muscles on the back of the neck. Here's how to do it:
- Place one or two fingertips on top of the muscle knot.
- Press on the knot with the firmest pressure you can tolerate. This will be uncomfortable, but avoid sharp pain.
- Hold this pressure for several minutes or until the discomfort begins to subside. You might even feel the knot "relax" under your fingertips.
It might be difficult for you to maintain this pressure with your fingers. Depending on the location of your knot, you can also try lying down with a tennis ball placed against the trigger point.
If the knot in your neck doesn't improve with stretches, consult a physical therapist to determine the underlying cause of your muscle tightness and for an individualized treatment plan. If you have pain, numbness, tingling or weakness in your arms, see a doctor for an evaluation.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Knots in Your Neck? How to Try a Trigger Point Massage to Release Them"
- American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: "Responsiveness of Myofascial Trigger Points to Single and Multiple Trigger Point Release Massages: A Randomized, Placebo Controlled Trial"
- Physicians' Diagnostics & Rehabilitation: "Cervical Spine Stretches"
- International Journal of Health Sciences & Research: "Comparative Study of Myofascial Release and Cold Pack in Upper Trapezius Spasm"