If you’re reaching for a bottle of pills to fight neck pain, consider exercising those aching muscles instead. A study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine found patients who exercised or underwent physical therapy experienced less pain than those who opted for medication. Here’s results from that study, as well as at-home neck pain exercises you can try.

What causes neck pain?

Neck pain is a common problem, affecting about 15-25% of people ages 21 to 55. Once a person experiences neck pain for any reason, there is a strong likelihood of recurring neck pain, often due to the same cause. In some cases, this pain is so severe as to cause a person to become disabled.

This is partially due to a society in which poor posture seems inevitable and is ubiquitous. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, many of us spend hours with our heads facing down, straining forward to see the screens which make up most of our day. The opposite of this hyperflexion (forward extension) is hyperextension when the delicate vertebrae of the neck are compressed as the head tilts up and back.

Do at-home neck pain exercises work? 

The special type of therapy used in the study from The Annals of Internal Medicine is called spinal manipulation therapy. It works to restore muscles, ligaments, and soft tissues to their full range of movement and elasticity. A specialist typically completes spinal manipulation, but study participants who completed a specific set of exercises at home experienced the same level of neck pain relief as those undergoing physical therapy.

Exercising the neck for just 12 weeks benefited neck pain sufferers for up to one year.

For the study, researchers recruited over 200 people ranging in age from 18 to 65 who had reported neck pain for anywhere from two to 12 weeks. Participants were divided into three groups. One group received spinal manipulation therapy, the second was assigned to home exercises, and the third took medication. Patients in the medication group took a range of drugs, including acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers, and in some cases, narcotics.

Although the exercise and spinal manipulation therapy lasted just 12 weeks, researchers evaluated patients periodically over an entire year. They primarily measured pain, but also looked at factors including general health and self-reported disability.

At-home neck pain exercises from study 

The group who exercised at home received specific rules and a prescribed set of exercises on flash cards. The exercises involved complete neck mobility, backwards, forwards, and all around. Participants held each exercise for two to three seconds per repetition and repeated them five to ten times. They completed the entire set anywhere from six to eight times each day.

Their at-home neck pain exercises included:

  1. While sitting or standing, hold the neck at a natural position. Then, push the head back and hold before releasing back to neutral.
  2. While sitting or standing with the head in a neutral position, bend the head backward, looking up to the sky. Hold, release, and repeat.
  3. Lie down on a sofa or table so the shoulders are supported but the head is not. Support the head with a hand before releasing and allowing the head to gently fall back. Hold, lift up gently, and repeat.
  4. Sitting or standing, gently stretch the head to the left. Bring back to neutral before stretching to the right. Hold, release, and repeat.
  5. Look to the left and right. In each direction, hold for a few breaths before releasing.
  6. Sitting in a neutral position, interlace the hands at the back of the head. Gently press the head forward, so you’re looking down. Hold for a f