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:
- While sitting or standing, hold the neck at a natural position. Then, push the head back and hold before releasing back to neutral.
- While sitting or standing with the head in a neutral position, bend the head backward, looking up to the sky. Hold, release, and repeat.
- 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.
- Sitting or standing, gently stretch the head to the left. Bring back to neutral before stretching to the right. Hold, release, and repeat.
- Look to the left and right. In each direction, hold for a few breaths before releasing.
- 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 few seconds, release, and repeat.
More at-home neck pain exercises
Those aren’t the only exercises you can try. We may not be able to change our occupations to prevent neck pain, but there are sitting exercises that you can do to help prevent or treat neck strain and discomfort. Each of these exercises should be done slowly and mindfully. Repeat them a couple times every hour, with the goal of three in a row every hour.
Note: Always talk to your doctor before attempting any new stretching or strengthening routines. If you’re suffering from severe or sharp pain, avoid doing these activities until you’ve visited your doctor. They can ensure there isn’t a more serious cause of your pain.
1. Cervical neck retraction (chin tuck)
This simple exercise “resets” the vertebrae and is an excellent way to remind you to keep your head directly on top of your neck (instead of pressing forward). Computer users who find themselves pressing their head towards the screen or those with a perpetual downward glance at their smartphones will get the most benefit.
Sit up straight with your eyes and nose level. Pull your chin straight back as you lengthen the back of your head. Think of a string pulling your spine up through the crown of your head as you tuck your chin back.
Don’t look down as you complete this exercise. You are not trying to round your cervical vertebrae. Think instead of lengthening the space between each vertebrae. You will know you are doing this correctly when the movement creates a double chin effect.
2. Bruegger’s relief position
Neck pain can be caused by fatigue in the trapezius muscles that drape in a V over the shoulders and down the back. Hunching over a computer or smartphone all day puts undue stress on these muscles, causing pain in the upper back that radiates up the neck. This simple maneuver re-aligns your arm bones so that they are correctly placed in the shoulder socket.
Sit upright on the edge of a firm chair. Your ankles should be directly under your knees so that your legs form a 90-degree angle. Let your arms dangle by your sides. Inhale deeply, imagining a string pulling you up through the crown of your head. As you exhale, slowly rotate your arms so that your palms are facing forward. Inhale again, and on an exhale, continue rotating your whole arm from the shoulder socket down to your fingertips so that your thumbs are pointing behind you, causing your palms to face out to the side. Hold this position for ten seconds as you breathe.
Try not to arch your back or jut your chest forward as you complete this maneuver. Draw your lower belly in slightly to keep your spine aligned as you breathe. You may feel your shoulder blades coming closer together on your back. This is a positive action and leads us to our next sitting exercise for neck pain.
3. Scapular retraction
You wouldn’t think that the shoulder blades or muscles in the back could cause neck pain, but the fact is that much of the weight and pressure of a misaligned head and neck is absorbed by the large muscles of the back and shoulders. For every inch the head sits forward of the cervical spine out of position, an extra eight pounds of pressure is placed on the neck and shoulders. Over time, this can cause serious neck pain.
Scapular retraction helps you to engage the shoulder blades and muscles of the back to help maintain proper alignment.
Sit on a firm chair in the same way you sat for Brugger’s relief position. Inhale your arms up into a “cactus” position, then on an exhale use your back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and together on the back. You may need to arch your upper back slightly at first to feel what the movement is like, but eventually you want to complete this exercise while sitting straight.
Hold your shoulder blades down and together by keeping your back muscles engaged for ten seconds, then release.
You can also complete this exercise with increased resistance by using a resistance training band tied firmly to a hook above you. Grasp one end in each hand and complete a scapular retraction. You may need to work up to ten seconds, especially if the movement is painful or exceptionally difficult.
4. All together
The most powerful sitting exercise for neck pain is to put all three of the above actions together at once. Your arms will be in a slightly different position when you combine these actions, but the benefit will be tremendous.
Move to the edge of your chair and inhale deeply as you straighten your spine and release your arms by your side. On an exhale, complete the chin tuck as you rotate your arms from the top of the arm bone all the way to the fingertips, facing your palms forward and then out to the side (thumb pointing back). Hold for ten seconds.
Inhale and raise your arms up in front of you with elbows bent. On an exhale, engage your shoulder muscles to bring your arm bones firmly back into the sockets and the shoulder blades onto the back. Hold for ten seconds (or as long as you can), maintaining the chin tuck, then release on an exhale.
Aim to complete this full exercise at least once every hour of the day that you are seated.
5-8. Yoga stretches for neck pain
There are also yoga poses that help stretch and strengthen the neck. In the following video, you can follow along with four exercises that help stretch the neck.
Not addressing your neck pain now can lead to chronic and long-term issues. If you find yourself with soreness or pain at the end of the day, give these at-home neck pain exercises a try!
If your pain is more severe or advanced, it may be time to talk to a pain specialist. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here.