The most common form of neck pain typically stems from poor posture, which puts extra tension on the neck muscles, irritates joints, and causes pain. Exercises can help reduce pain, increase mobility, and strengthen the neck and postural musculature.
Neck pain is a common problem that may occur for many reasons. Typically, it improves within a few weeks and is rarely serious.
People can take steps to relieve neck pain at home by using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil), and keeping active.
Exercises may also help reduce neck tension and increase the range of movement in the neck. People experiencing severe neck pain should not attempt neck exercises and should instead contact a healthcare professional.
In this article, we will examine exercises that may ease neck pain. We will also look at potential neck pain causes and treatments.
Exercises may help with neck pain, although that depends on its cause. If a person has recently had an injury, they should consult a doctor before exercising.
Neck pain can be uncomfortable and disrupt daily activities. It can also radiate to other areas of the body, such as the shoulders and arms.
Depending on the source of neck pain, treatments will aim to reduce pain by:
- increasing postural strength
- increasing joint mobility and improving range of motion
- reducing neural tension
- increasing muscle flexibility
A person can often relieve neck pain at home by resting and trying gentle exercises. Sometimes, medications are necessary to reduce inflammation and pain in the affected area.
Severe neck pain may require additional forms of treatment. Doctors may suggest visiting a physical therapist for an exercise program.
According to the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association, there are four main types of conservatively managed neck pain:
- Neck pain with mobility deficits: This is a stiff neck a person experiences after straining the neck muscles when sleeping in the wrong position or lifting heavy weights.
- Neck pain with movement coordination impairments: This includes whiplash and neck pain that occurs after a person has been sitting at a desk in the wrong position for too long.
- Neck pain with headaches: This type of pain includes neck pain with headaches toward the back of the head.
- Neck pain with radiating pain: This includes neck pain due to spinal stenosis, a slipped — or herniated — cervical disc, or cervical nerve compression.
Stretching the neck may help a person relieve muscle tension and improve their range of motion. Below, we list examples of exercises that are best for neck pain with mobility deficits.
- From a neutral position, turn the head slowly to the left as if looking over the shoulder.
- Pause for a moment before turning the head back to the center.
- Repeat on the right side.
- Lower the head forward toward the chest and hold for a moment.
- Slowly move the head upward to a neutral position.
- Repeat the motion several times.
- Start with the head and neck in a neutral position.
- Lift both shoulders in a shrugging motion, without moving the head or neck.
- Move the shoulders in a circular motion, squeezing the shoulder blades together and then releasing them to push them forward.
- Repeat the movement in the opposite direction.
- Extend both arms straight above the head and clasp the hands.
- Without bending the neck, lean slowly toward the left side.
- Return to the center, keeping the arms above the head.
- Repeat the movement on the right side.
- Sit on a chair with a straight back.
- Put the left hand on the right knee and gently pull to rotate the shoulders to the right as if looking behind the chair.
- Slowly return to the center.
- Repeat the twist with the right hand on the left knee.
Strengthening the postural muscles — the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and back — may improve neck pain recovery and prevent future injuries.
Strengthening exercises include:
- Lie flat on the back with the arms stretched to the sides.
- Nod the head and tuck in the chin.
- Hold for a few seconds before releasing back to a neutral position.
- Repeat the motion several times.
- Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and a weight in each hand.
- Keeping the body still, move the arms outward until they are level with the shoulders.
- Slowly lower the arms back to the side and repeat.
- Hold weights in each hand and stand upright.
- Slowly move both weights forward, away from the body.
- Keep the arms straight and keep moving until the weights are level with the shoulders.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
Seated overhead press
- Sit on a bench or chair and grip weights in each hand level with the shoulders.
- Push the weights upward, extending the arms overhead.
- Slowly return the weights to the sides of the shoulders before repeating the motion.
- Attach a resistance band to a door handle.
- Hold the band handles in front of you and sit on a bench or chair or stand up.
- Pull the band handles toward the lower abdomen until they are in line with the side body, and the elbows are behind you.
- Slowly release before repeating.
Poor posture is a common cause of muscle strains in the neck. It can worsen an existing injury and increase the likelihood of another one.
Using a computer or phone for extended periods can lead to forward head posture, where the head projects forward from the spine. This can trigger symptoms such as dull pain across the back or sides of the neck that may spread to the upper back, shoulders, and head.
If a person adjusts their posture, they may reduce neck, back, and shoulder pain.
When seated, a person should aim to keep the head in line with the spine and avoid slouching. It may help to adjust the screen to eye level when using a computer.
When standing, a person should keep the shoulders, neck, and spine aligned to achieve the correct posture. They should avoid tilting the head forward.
Sleeping on the stomach can also cause neck problems. A person can try to sleep on the back or on one side with a pillow between the knees. They can also use a supportive pillow to keep the neck aligned with the spine.
Other ways to improve neck pain include:
- applying hot or cold packs
- taking anti-inflammatory medications
- using support, such as a neck brace
- resting to avoid excessive strain
Some causes of neck pain, such as muscle strains, will usually heal without treatment. OTC pain relief medications can help manage the pain at home.
If a person experiences persistent or worsening neck pain, they should consult a doctor. A person should seek immediate medical attention if they have severe neck pain following a traumatic injury to the neck, such as a fall or car accident.
Neck pain is a common occurrence and has a range of causes.
Neck pain will often ease without treatment. Depending on the cause, exercises may help with recovery.
Exercising the neck may reduce pain, increase range of motion, and improve strength. Sometimes, a person with neck pain may require the help of a physical therapist.
A doctor may also prescribe medications to reduce inflammation and alleviate neck pain.