how to relieve neck pain

How to Relieve Neck Pain With Physical Therapy

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Medically reviewed by Misty Seidenburg

Have the stresses of everyday life or the attachment to your screens become a literal “pain in the neck?” Nearly three-quarters of people experience some form of neck pain during their lifetime, and that pain often interferes with work, sports, sleep, and other activities.

Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer from neck pain, stiffness, and tension. Learn how to relieve neck pain by improving strength and flexibility in the neck and the muscles that support it.

Understanding Neck Pain: Causes and Symptoms

Neck pain is one of the most widely reported types of chronic pain among adults in the United States. It affects the part of the body below the head, known as the cervical spine. Damage to the nerves, bones, muscles, and connective structures in and around the neck can trigger symptoms. Pain can be local to the neck, or radiate to the head, shoulders, arms, and throughout the body.

Neck pain has many possible causes. Here are some of the most common:

  • Arthritis: Degeneration of the discs and joints in the neck causes mild to severe pain and stiffness for many people with arthritis.
  • Cervical stenosis: This is a narrowing of the spaces within the spine which increases pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
  • Cervicogenic headaches: referred pain originating in the neck is experienced as headache pain, usually on the side where the neck is tightest
  • Disease: Along with arthritis, other diseases like meningitis and cancer have neck pain as a symptom.
  • Emotional stress: The body’s reacts to stress by tensing up, leading to chronic neck and shoulder tension and pain over time.
  • Injuries: Damage can occur from a single trauma to the body, or from repetitive stress and strain on any of the structures of the neck.
  • Posture problems: How you hold and position the body when sitting, standing, and sleeping can strain the neck muscles.
  • Tech neck: This is repetitive strain on the bones, muscles, and nerves caused by prolonged bending over to look at a screen.

10 Stretches and Exercises for Neck Pain

Many people with neck pain find relief with conservative treatments like physical therapy. Therapeutic physical therapy exercises for neck pain strengthen neck muscles and increase flexibility and range of motion. Here are some you can do at home for long-term relief.

We’ll begin with a few simple yet effective stretches followed by targeted exercises to build strength in the structures that support the neck. You can do each series 1 – 2 times per day.

Neck Rotation

This stretch is a good way to warm up the body and prepare for the exercises to come. It increases flexibility in the neck and upper back muscles that allow the neck to flex and the head to rotate.

  1. Begin in a seated or standing position, looking straight ahead.
  2. Keeping your chin in a neutral position, slowly turn your head to the left.
  3. Hold for 15 – 30 seconds before turning to look straight.
  4. Turn to look to the right and hold for 15 – 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat 2 – 3 times on each side.

Ear-to-Shoulder Stretch

The upper trapezius muscle extends across the tops of the shoulders and helps with extending, lifting, and tilting the neck. Chronic misalignment due to poor posture, stress levels, working at a desk, or driving for long periods of time can lead to tight upper traps and limited neck flexibility.

  1. Begin in a seated or standing position, looking straight ahead.
  2. Slowly your head to the left, tipping your left ear toward your left shoulder, without allowing your shoulder to rise up. You can use your left hand and reach it over your head to apply gentle pressure and deepen the stretch.
  3. Hold for 15 – 30 seconds and move your head back into an upright position.
  4. Now, shift your right ear toward your right shoulder and hold for 15 – 30 seconds. For a deeper stretch, press on the top of your head with your right hand.
  5. Repeat 2 – 3 times on each side.

Levator Scap Stretch

This stretch targets the levator scapulae muscles located along the sides of the neck and attached to the shoulder blades. Office workers who tend to spend hours at a time hunched over a keyboard are prone to significant pain and tightness in the upper back and neck known as levator scapulae syndrome.

  1. Start in a seated position and place your right hand under your right leg.
  2. Tilt your head down to the left at an angle, pointing your nose toward your left armpit.
  3. For a deeper stretch, use your left hand to apply more pressure.
  4. Hold for 15 – 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat 3 times on each side.

Forward Neck Flexion and Extension

The forward neck flexion gives an even deeper stretch in the muscles of the upper back and shoulder blades. Go as far as you can go without pain and see if you can reach a bit further every day.

  1. Start in a seated or standing position. Look straight ahead.
  2. Bend your head forward until your chin nearly meets your chest.
  3. Hold for 15 – 30 seconds.
  4. Now bend your head back and bring your chin toward the ceiling.
  5. Hold for 15 – 30 seconds.
  6. Repeat 3-4 times in both directions.

Neck Glide

Here’s another stretch for the muscles of the back of the neck to combat tech neck and other posture problems.

  1. Stand or sit up straight and look forward.
  2. Gently slide your chin forward and hold for 10 seconds.
  3. Return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 10 times.

Doorway Stretch

This move is great for correcting posture and relieving tightness in the pectoral muscles in the chest that contributes to poor neck position and neck pain.

1.Stand in a doorway with your arms raised at 90-degree angles. Your elbows should be in line with your shoulders.

  1. Place one foot out in front of you for support.
  2. Keeping your head and chest neutral, slowly begin to lean forward as though you are stepping through the door.
  3. Hold that position for 30 – 40 seconds before returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 3 – 4 times.

Now we’ll continue with low-impact exercises to strengthen the muscles of the arms, shoulders, back and neck. You should begin to notice your posture improving and pain and tension in your upper body decrease after just a few sessions.

Shoulder Blade Squeeze

  1. In a seated or standing position, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  2. Hold 5 seconds and release.
  3. Repeat 10 – 15 times.

Wall Push-Up

  1. Stand up straight facing a wall or door with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Place your hands on the wall, just below shoulder level and straighten your arms.
  3. Now, bend your arms slightly while keeping your head in a neutral position—like you’re doing a push-up on the wall.
  4. Repeat 15 – 20 times.

Resistance Band Row

  1. Attach a resistance band to a hook or tie it in a knot and close the door. It should be at chest level.
  2. Stand up tall with your knees slightly bent far enough away from the door that the band is fully-extended.
    Grab one end of the band with each hand and pull your arms back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  3. Return to your starting position.
  4. Repeat this 15 – 20 times.

Prone Row

1.For this exercise, we’ll begin lying face-down down on a bed with your head pointing toward the corner. (You can place a small pillow under your stomach for comfort.)

  1. Let your arms dangle off the bed.
  2. Now, bend your arms and pull them up back while squeezing your shoulders together. (Do not lift your head.)
  3. Return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat this 15 – 20 times.

Always seek medical help for neck pain that doesn’t improve within a few days or happens as a result of a specific injury, and check with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program and discontinue if pain gets worse.

Chronic neck pain doesn’t have to be a fact of life. Find a physical therapy clinic near you to schedule a new-patient evaluation.

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Medically reviewed by

Misty Seidenburg

Vice President of Clinical Programs

Dr. Misty Seidenburg has been a practicing physical therapist since 2006 after obtaining her Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree from Gannon University. Dr. Seidenburg completed an Orthopedic Residency in 2009 and subsequent Spine Fellowship in 2010 where she discovered a passion for educating clinicians. Since 2019, she has developed and refined several post-professional residency and fellowship programs and currently serves as the Vice President of Clinical Programs for Upstream Rehab Institute. She serves on several APTA committees to help advance the profession, is adjunct faculty at Messiah University, and is also a senior instructor and course developer for the Institute of Advanced Musculoskeletal Treatments with a special interest in exercise integration. Outside of work, she enjoys challenging herself with new adventures and is currently competing as an endurance athlete.

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