For some people, exercise is a real pain — not only because it's something you know you have to do for good health when you'd rather be doing something else, but also because it can cause aches and pains after your workout. Usually, these pains are due to delayed-onset muscle soreness, which almost all fitness enthusiasts experience at some point. In rarer cases, improper exercise technique, a muscle strain or another injury can cause muscle and neck pain after exercise.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness, incorrect exercise technique or a muscle strain can cause muscle and neck pain after a workout.
Could It Be DOMS?
DOMS stands for delayed-onset muscle soreness. It's a common occurrence among athletes and gym-goers, especially those who have recently started exercising. It can also happen due to overexertion or to a change in training that includes brand new exercises. DOMS typically appears 24 to 48 hours after exercise, according to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.
Strenuous exercise — especially strength training — causes microtears in the muscle fibers. That sounds bad, but it's not. In fact, the recovery process, in which your body repairs damaged muscle fibers and builds new ones, is how your muscles gain strength and size.
But these microtears cause inflammation, which can lead to that achy feeling in your neck muscles. You may have a stiff neck and shoulders, and if the damage is severe, you may also have visible and/or palpable swelling.
Can You Treat DOMS?
There isn't a "cure" for DOMS, so you just have to wait it out. In the meantime, some home treatments can help you reduce the pain, stiffness and swelling.
Rest and ice: Take it easy for a while, and avoid any strenuous activities until the pain has subsided. Exercising too soon can increase inflammation and make matters worse. Cold therapy relieves pain and swelling. You can apply ice packs to the neck muscles for 10 to 20 minutes at a time every hour or couple of hours.
Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain-relieving medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can help temporarily relieve inflammation and pain. Follow dosing instructions on the package, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions.
Low-intensity exercise and stretching: A brisk walk can build mild heat in the body and get blood flowing to the muscles, which will ease soreness and stiffness temporarily. After the acute phase, gentle neck stretches can help loosen up a stiff neck and shoulders. Try tilting the head forward and back and then side to side. Hold each position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat the stretches three times, several times throughout the day.
Read more: 10 Popular Exercises That Can Hurt Your Back
Can You Prevent DOMS?
Most people find DOMS to be very uncomfortable and are eager to never experience it again. The good news is that it's pretty easy to prevent by just keeping in mind a few simple tips.
Take it slow: Increase the intensity gradually each time you engage in the activity that made your neck sore. When strength training, don't increase your weight or volume by more than 10 percent each week, advise physiotherapists John Miller and Adrian Wong.
Warm up: Do some light cardio exercise before your real workout begins to get blood flowing to your neck and shoulder muscles. Then, do some gentle dynamic stretches, such as neck rolls, to further prepare the muscles for exercise.
Cool down: After exercising take some time to relax your muscles before heading back to your daily activities. Perform static stretches for the neck and shoulders, holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeating it three times.
How's Your Running Form?
Incorrect running form can lead to a host of problems, including a sore neck. It's common when running to tense up in the upper body, which leads to soreness in the trapezius muscles of the upper back, the shoulders and the neck.
Jae Gruenke, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner and running technique expert, says this is often caused by running with a rounded back — a common result of the everyday hunched posture many people with desk jobs have when sitting all day.
The key to fixing this is not actually in your shoulders and neck but in "tuning up your core action" — a rotation of your torso that, when optimized, can reduce effort and tension and increase speed, according to Gruenke.
Are You Lifting Correctly?
Incorrect technique with certain weightlifting moves can also cause neck pain after a workout. For example, according to strength and conditioning coach Jeff Kuhland, incorrect head position in pullups and deadlifts can cause neck pain and injury.
In a pullup, people often overextend the neck to get their chin above the bar, which puts pressure on the vertebrae and can cause shoulder injury. In the deadlift, looking up rather than straight ahead exposes the neck to a "ton of pressure," says Kuhland.
Is It a Muscle Strain?
Injury is a risk with any type of exercise. Overextending the muscles in your neck can cause the muscle fibers to become stretched to the point of tearing, which results in a muscle strain. Strains occur in varying intensities from mild, in which only a few muscles are affected, to severe, in which there is a complete tear.
Rest, ice and compression can help relieve the pain and inflammation caused by muscle strains, and a period of rest after injury is usually necessary to allow the strain to heal. If the strain is serious, you will have trouble moving your neck and should see a medical professional as soon as possible.
To prevent future strains, strengthen and stretch the muscles in your neck, as weak, inflexible muscles are more prone to injury. Additionally, warm up before your workout and ensure you're using proper exercise technique.
Neck Pain After Exercise
There are myriad other causes of neck pain after exercise. For example, an injury to the rotator cuff in your shoulder can cause pain to radiate to your neck. Repetitive exercise movements that weaken and inflame the muscles can often cause tendonitis, an overuse injury that develops over time.
Cervical radiculopathy, otherwise known as a pinched nerve in the neck, results from a nerve in your neck being compressed or irritated. According to OrthoInfo, pinched nerves in older people typically result from wear and tear in the spine. In younger people, an acute injury that causes a herniated disc is often the cause. However, a pinched nerve can also result from simply moving your neck in an awkward way or sleeping in an awkward position.
Whatever the cause of your neck pain, if it doesn't resolve within a few days, you should visit your doctor. He can identify the cause and help you determine the proper course of treatment to resolve your neck pain after exercise.
- PhysioWorks: DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
- University of New Mexico: How Do Muscles Grow?
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: Effect of Compression Garments on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Blood Inflammatory Markers After Eccentric Exercise: A Randomized Controlled Trial
- The Balanced Runner: How to Fix Your Shoulder Tension When You Run (Part One)
- Breaking Muscle: Use Your Head To Save Your Neck: 4 Ways You're Causing Neck Injury
- Harvard Health Publishing: Muscle Strain
- Cleveland Clinic: Is Your Shoulder Pain Actually a Neck Problem?
- OrthoInfo: Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve)