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Neck Pain Relief: 4 Gentle-but-Effective Stretches

Written by Beth Holloway, RN, M.Ed
2022-05-04

Neck pain is very common. We even use the expression “pain in the neck” to describe something that is difficult or annoying. If you have neck pain, you know that it can be a painful and disruptive experience.

One of the most effective methods to relieve neck pain is exercise - it can help prevent or decrease neck pain. Like most musculoskeletal conditions (those that impact the bones, muscles, ligaments, etc.), gentle stretching exercises are part of the treatment for neck pain.

Read on for some specific neck pain exercises, as well as information and advice to help you better understand them. You'll also read about topics such as causes, treatment, and prevention of neck pain.

Part I: 4 Stretching Exercises that Can Help Your Neck Pain

In order to get the most benefit, you should perform these neck stretch exercises at least 2 to 3 times a week.

Part II: Information/Advice about Neck Pain

Part I: 4 Stretching Exercises for Neck Pain

In order to get the most benefit, you should perform these exercises 3 to 5 times per week for 3 weeks.

Exercise 1: Anterior Scalene Muscles Stretch

Why it’s beneficial:

The anterior scalene muscles help with bending (flexion) and turning (rotation) your neck and raising your top ribs when you breathe in. This stretch helps to loosen this group of muscles, which are located in the front of your neck.

Steps

  1. Stand with your back straight and your head upright.

  2. Gently place one hand on top of the other over your sternum (or breastbone).

  3. Tilt your head and neck to one side (i.e. to the right) while looking upward. You should feel a gentle stretch in the front and side of your neck.

  4. Hold for 20 seconds, then relax.

  5. Tilt your head and neck in the opposite direction (i.e. to the left) and look upward.

  6. Hold for 20 seconds, then relax.

  7. Repeat one more time per side for a total of 2 repetitions (or “reps”) per side.

Exercise 2: Upper Trapezius (“Trap”) Stretch

Why it’s beneficial:

The trapezius is a large muscle covering much of your upper back. This stretch helps to lessen the tightness associated with poor posture (i.e. hunching with the neck and shoulders forward).

Steps

  1. Stand with your head upright, back straight, and your arms at your sides.

  2. With one hand, reach over your head and place your palm just above your ear.

  3. Apply gentle pressure, stretching your neck to the right side. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds.

  4. Return to the starting position.

  5. Repeat on the left side, then again on each side, for a total of 2 reps per side.

Exercise 3: Levator Scapulae (“Scap”) Stretch

Why it’s beneficial:

Your levator scapulae or “scap” muscles are located in the back and side of your neck. They help move your scapulae or shoulder blades and neck. This stretch helps to relieve neck and shoulder pain associated with poor head and neck posture.

Steps

  1. Stand with your arms at your sides.

  2. With your right hand, reach up and grasp the back of your head.

  3. Apply gentle pressure, stretching your neck at a 45-degree angle in the direction of your right armpit. Keep your left arm at your side. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds. Return to the starting position.

  4. Repeat with your left hand, stretching in the direction of your left armpit, then one more time on each side for a total of 2 reps per side.

Exercise 4: Corner Pectoralis (“Pec”) Stretch

Why it’s beneficial:

The pectorals or “pecs” are a group of muscles located in your chest. They connect your arms and shoulders to your chest area or thorax. The corner stretch helps to loosen tight pectoral muscles associated with poor posture (i.e. from sitting with your head and neck bent forward for long periods of time).

Steps

  1. Stand in a corner with your legs apart and your feet, one in front of the other, on the floor.

  2. Place a forearm on each wall with your elbows bent upward at 90 degrees.

  3. Lean forward with your upper body until you feel a stretch across your chest. Hold for 20 seconds.

  4. Repeat one time for a total of 2 reps.

If the stretch is uncomfortable, you can lower your arms or move each elbow back away from the walls for a gentler stretch.

Part II: Information and Advice About Neck Pain

Neck Pain

In addition to the neck pain stretches, it can be helpful to understand neck pain causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Neck Anatomy

The anatomy or “make-up” of the neck can help you understand your neck pain. The neck is made up of bones, joints, discs, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Part of the spinal cord and some spinal nerves are also located in the neck.The bones of the neck are called cervical vertebrae. Cervical refers to the neck and vertebrae are simply the bones of the spine. You have seven cervical vertebrae stacked atop each other. They are cushioned with intervertebral discs located between the vertebrae.You also have muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the neck and allow for movement.

What Causes Neck Pain?

There are many causes of neck pain. One of the most frequent causes is an injury to soft tissue, like a muscle, tendon, or ligament. Arthritis is another common cause of neck pain. And, sometimes, the cause may be unknown.

Muscle, Tendon, and Ligament Injuries

Muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries may be caused by accidents, like a car accident or fall. They may also result from maintaining poor posture, such as when sitting at a computer or driving. And, these injuries may occur due to overuse, like lifting heavy items or participating in sports. Strains are caused by overstretching or tearing muscles and/or tendons. Sprains are caused by overstretching or tearing ligaments.

Tech Neck

Tech neck is specific type of pain that affects the muscles of the neck. It is associated with the use of technology, most often from looking at a screen. It is a result of the forward-bending position of the head and neck when you spend time using a smartphone or laptop.

Studies show that up to half of workers from all industries, including those in office settings, have neck problems each year. Think about sitting at your desk at work or at home. What is your posture like? Do you tend to sit with your back straight and chin up, or with your shoulders and head bent forward? Many of us have unhealthy postures that can cause tech neck.

Arthritis

Arthritis means “inflammation of a joint.” Arthritis of the cervical spine involves bone, joint, and disc changes due to long-term “wear-and-tear.” Because arthritis is from bone, joint, and disc changes over time, it is more and more common as we age.The changes may also lead to neck and arm pain and other symptoms if they cause cervical radiculopathy, or pressure on one of the spinal nerves.

What are the Risk Factors for Neck Pain?

Many factors contribute to a person’s neck pain. In most cases, it is usually a combination of more than one factor that results in neck pain.

As you think about the anatomy of the neck and the causes of neck pain, you may have already identified some of the risk factors. For example, previous injuries; inactivity that leads to weak or tight muscles; working in an occupation with prolonged computer use or heavy lifting; and older age are risk factors for neck pain.Additional risk factors include heightened stress, poor sleep, and even certain medical conditions.

What are the Symptoms of Neck Pain?

Of course, pain and discomfort are two of the symptoms of the common causes of neck pain - muscle and ligament injuries and arthritis. You may also have stiffness, trouble moving your neck, headaches, or pain in your upper back and shoulders.

How is Neck Pain Diagnosed?

Your doctor or physical therapist (PT) can usually diagnose neck pain related to muscle or ligament injuries or arthritis by asking you questions and examining your neck.

They will ask questions about your symptoms, your daily activities, whether or not you’ve injured your neck, how long you’ve had the pain. They will check your neck, asking you to move your head and neck in various ways (i.e. checking your range of motion) while checking for worsening symptoms.

For example, they may ask you to gently bend your head forward (neck flexion), bend your head back (neck extension), and move your chin towards each shoulder (neck rotation to the left and right).

Unless you have symptoms of more serious neck problems, diagnostic tests are usually unnecessary.

What Is The Treatment For Neck Pain?

A very important part of neck pain treatment is exercise, stretching, strengthening, and maintaining or improving your range of motion (ROM). The stretches detailed above are key part of treating your neck pain.As part of our musculoskeletal health program, Goodpath provides a specific plan for neck pain that includes a series of exercises for your neck, plus treatment for other factors that contribute to your pain.

Strengthening Exercises

As the name suggests, strengthening exercises help you to increase the strength of your neck muscles.An example of a strengthening exercise is the chin tuck.

The steps for the chin tuck exercise are:

  1. Sit with your shoulders back and your head and torso in an upright position.

  2. Place 2 fingers on your chin.

  3. Tuck your chin and gently pull your head back. Use your fingers to keep your chin tucked to your chest.

  4. Hold for a few seconds. Relax.

  5. Repeat 2 to 3 sets, 10 times each.

Range of Motion Exercises

With ROM exercises, you slowly move your neck in different directions to help improve movement and flexibility. The movements are similar to those your doctor may use to check your neck.For example, neck ROM exercises include gently moving your head front-to-back (neck flexion and extension) and chin-to-shoulder (neck rotation). You’ll want to complete 2 sets of 10 repetitions (“reps”) front and back and left to right.

Here’s another example of a ROM exercise that focuses on your upper back. It’s called the seated thoracic extension.

The steps for the seated thoracic extension are:

  1. Sit in a chair with your back supported.

  2. Place both hands behind your head with your elbows facing forward.

  3. Sit up tall, extend your upper body over the back of the chair.

  4. Hold for 3 seconds.

  5. Return to the starting position.

  6. Repeat for a total of 10 reps.

Regular physical activity is important to your health overall. You want to keep moving so you’re changing your neck position/posture and helping to lessen tightness and stiffness.Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and topical products that are applied to the skin can help relieve neck pain. Some nutritional supplements can also provide relief.You should also aim to eat healthy foods (e.g. a Mediterranean-style or anti-inflammatory diet) and avoid extra body weight.

And mind-body exercises like yoga, guided imagery, and muscle relaxation can help relieve stress and lessen pain.Your doctor or a specialist may refer you to a physical therapist (PT) for further testing and treatment. For chronic neck pain, they may also prescribe medication, refer you to a PT, or suggest procedures or surgery.

Does a Person Recover from Neck Pain?

People do recover from short-term (acute) neck pain. For some, neck pain may become long-term (chronic). Even with chronic neck pain, there are still effective treatments.

Can Neck Pain be Prevented?

Most of the time, neck pain is preventable. As with treating neck pain, exercise and movement (i.e. avoiding the same position, increasing strength and flexibility, etc.) helps to prevent it.You should also use proper posture, organize your workspace ergonomically, lift and carry safely, and warm-up and stretch before exercise and sports activities. If you are involved in an accident, you should contact your doctor for proper care.A healthy lifestyle is another way of helping to prevent neck pain. It includes regular exercise and movement, healthy eating, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, and not smoking.

When Should I Contact My Doctor?

Most of the time, neck pain is not serious. However, there are situations in which you should see your doctor (or in some cases, get immediate medical care). Contact your doctor if you have neck pain:

  • that’s sudden, severe, or getting worse;

  • that includes lasting tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms or hands;

  • that is accompanied by a fever, chills, headache, or body aches;

  • or following an accident or head injury (e.g. car accident, serious fall).

How Goodpath Can Help

Goodpath uses an integrative approach for our programs. Our musculoskeletal (MSK) program includes a specific neck pain plan. It is a whole-person approach with neck exercises, dietary recommendations, mind-body techniques, nutritional supplements, and over-the-counter medicines and other products.Check out our neck and back pain resources to learn more or get started on your custom treatment program.