Neck pain can be caused by any number of different things: stress at work, “text neck,” injury, or chronic illness. Addressing the root cause of neck pain is the most important way to approach full healing, but addressing the ache is important, too. Neck pain exercises and stretches for neck pain are a simple way to provide pain relief and increase range of motion.
35 neck pain exercises and stretches that can help you find relief
When neck pain hits, stretching out those muscles works out any kinks, tightness, or tension that may be causing the discomfort. Releasing tension from neck and shoulder muscles may also help reduce the frequency of tension headaches. These easy neck pain exercises and stretches for neck pain can be done anywhere and take just a few minutes to complete. Try several of these neck pain exercises to see which one works the best for your pain. When performing these exercises for neck pain, take care to listen to your body and avoid pushing it too far.
1. Side neck stretch
From a neutral position, gently let the head fall down to the right shoulder. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds before completing the same stretch on the other side. Repeat the stretch 2 to 3 times on each side. Keep the shoulders down and relaxed. If you’d like a little extra stretch, place a hand gently on top of the head, letting the weight push the head down a little further. If you feel any pain, ease off.
2. Rotation neck stretch
Start in a neutral position before slowly turning the head to the right, keeping the chin level. Turn the head as far as possible while looking over the right shoulder. Hold at the maximum stretch for about 10 seconds. Return to neutral and repeat on the other side.
3. Isometric neck exercises
Stretching may help alleviate pain, but doing neck pain exercises with resistance has been proven to provide as much as four times the benefit, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The exercise for neck pain tested in the study used resistance bands, but a similar effect can be achieved by using the hands.
Try holding the palm of the right hand against head, directly above the ear. Gently push the head and the hand into each other while keeping the neck in a neutral position for about six seconds. Rest for ten seconds and repeat on the same side. Then, complete two repetitions on the left side.
After exercising the sides of the neck, try placing the hand on the forehead, pushing the head forward into the hand for six seconds. Repeat two times. Finally, place the hand on the back of the head, pressing together for six seconds. Rest and repeat.
4. Front shoulder stretch
Straighten the left arm in front of you before moving it to the right, across the body. Bend the right arm, catching the left arm in the elbow crook. Gently stretch the left shoulder for a count of five. Repeat on the other side.
5. Back shoulder stretch
Lift both arms overhead. Bend the right arm and capture the left arm with the right hand, just above the elbow. Gently let the left arm fall down, stretching the right shoulder. Let the arm fall down as far as feels comfortable. Hold for about five seconds before repeating on the other side.
6-10. Five more neck pain exercises from Maryann Berry
Maryann Berry from BreakingMuscle.com offers guided advice on neck pain exercises you can do to relieve tension and pain.
Using yoga for neck pain
Yoga is another excellent way to improve strength and flexibility in the body. The deep breathing that comes with yoga helps practitioners become more aware of the tension in their bodies, and consistent yoga practice helps to release stress and the pain that it can bring. One of the main areas people hold stress is the neck and upper back. When these areas are tight, headaches can result. We often spend long hours hunched over a computer, and when we are tired, our shoulders slump forward into our chests, our head juts forward, and neck pain and headaches result. Yoga for neck pain can help you release that tension.
Just a few simple exercises can help relax and release the tension in your neck and shoulders while easing your aching head. Many of the stretches for neck pain focus on areas other than the neck. The shoulder, neck, and back muscles are all interwoven and overlapping, connecting to each other and the entire shoulder girdle. When one is tight, others will exert themselves to compensate.
11. Wide-legged forward fold
A wide-legged forward fold is a good place to start with these stretches for neck pain. Stand with your feet about three or four feet apart. Inhale, then on an exhale, fold over. Try to keep your legs engaged and your back straight. You can stop halfway down and rest your forehead on a chair or a counter, or you can go all the way down. Keep your core engaged and your legs firm, and let your neck and head relax. Hold for several breaths, letting everything go. Rise up on an inhale, slowly.
12. Standing forward fold with shoulder opener
Stand tall with feet parallel and hip’s width distance apart. Inhale, lengthening the crown of your head to the sky. Exhale and lengthen your tailbone down towards the floor, just enough to engage the muscles of your low belly. Interlace your hands behind. Inhale and reach your hands towards the floor behind you as you look up, pressing your sternum to the sky (keep that tailbone rooting down to protect your lower back).
On your next exhale, hinge forward from the hips, folding forward. Bend your knees if you need to protect the back of your knees. As you fold, bring your clasped hands up and over your head as far as is comfortable. Stay in this position for five deep, even breaths.
To come up, release the clasp of your hands and bring your hands to your hips. Bend your knees slightly, and on an inhale come halfway up. Stay there for the exhale, then on your next inhale, press your feet into the ground to rise all the way up out of this exercise for neck pain.
13. Strap stretches
Sit comfortably with spine tall and tailbone lengthening down. Take a strap or belt in both hands and raise your hands above your head. Relax your shoulder blades down the back and lengthen your tailbone to the ground while reaching towards the sky with the crown of your head. With hands wide, exhale and lower the arms down in front of you, keeping your elbows straight. Inhale your arms back above your head, then exhale and lower your arms all the way behind you without bending your elbows.
You may need to widen your hands on the strap to keep your elbows straight. If you have a shoulder injury, approach this exercise carefully and only go as far as you can go safely. Always back off if you feel any stabbing pain. Continue to breathe, lengthen your tailbone down and your crown up, and try to keep your head centered above your shoulders (no jutting forward). Repeat three times, front and back, breathing slowly and evenly.
You can also practice stretching your shoulders by placing your hands on the strap as shown below. Again, go into this, and any of these stretches for neck pain, slowly and carefully.
14. Neck circles
This exercise for neck pain can be completed either sitting or standing. Either way, lengthen your tailbone down to engage your low belly and lift the crown of your head to the sky. Inhale deeply, and on the exhale, slowly lower your chin to your chest. Inhale and slowly begin to circle your neck over to the right shoulder, then around to the back. Continue to the left shoulder and with your chin to your chest on an exhale. Complete five slow circles in each direction, going slowly and feeling the stretch.
15. Cat and cow pose
Move down to the floor for cat and cow pose, and the following neck pain exercises. Start on hands and knees. Inhale deeply, lifting the chin and dropping the belly towards the floor while the back of your hips float up. On an exhale, arch your back and drop your head and hips toward the floor, like a Halloween cat. Do several sets of these until you feel a loosening. Don’t push, and follow your inhale and exhale.
16. Thread the needle
Start on all fours. On an inhale, reach your right hand up, opening your chest to the right. As you exhale, reach your right arm under the left arm (threading the needle). Bring your shoulder and cheek to the ground. Rest here for five to ten deep, even breaths.
To come out, inhale, pushing into your left hand, and open your right arm back up to the sky. Repeat with the left arm.
17. Child’s pose
Sitting with your legs folded under you, let your knees fall open while your toes stay touching, and fold over until your forehead touches the ground. Breathe into your upper back. Arms can either be stretched overhead or can be by your sides. Stay here for several breaths, and relax. Try to keep your butt on your heels, but don’t push.
On an inhale, rise up from child’s pose. Cross your legs. Inhale and lift your right arm over your head. Exhale, place your right hand on your head, and gently stretch your head down towards your right shoulder. Breathe and relax. Try to release any clenching you feel. Inhale and release, then switch the cross of your legs and repeat on the left side. Clasp both hands behind your head, and gently press your head forward.
After you stretch both sides, inhale both arms up over your head, then exhale, bringing your right hand to your left knee and placing your left hand on the floor behind you. Inhale and lengthen up through your spine (imagine that you are lifting the roof of your mouth while keeping it parallel to the floor), and as you exhale and squeeze your belly button in, deepen the twist. Hold for five breaths, then inhale your arms over your head and repeat on the other side.
18. Leg up the wall pose
Next, move to a wall and lay back with your legs going up the wall. You can roll a blanket and place it in the small of your back if you need more support, or you can place a blanket under your hips. Your legs need not be straight. You can also place a blanket down the middle of your back to open the front of your body. Arms should be out to the side in a T. Stay in this pose for anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes.
This exercise for neck pain is a restorative pose and should feel good. Let the floor support you; let go and just breathe. If thoughts come through your mind while you are in this pose, acknowledge them and let them go. Keep breathing into the tight spots in your body, trying to loosen any clenching or grasping. This pose can be done by itself anytime you need to reduce your stress level and calm down.
19-22. Yoga for neck pain stretches from Pain Doctor
These stretches for neck pain from yoga teacher, Suzanne Heyn, are a perfect sequence for loosening muscles and relieving neck pain. She starts with triangle pose. The second pose that she goes over is side angle pose, and the foot position in that pose is the same as in the triangle pose. The third pose she shows is a restorative back bend. The fourth pose she does is the Locust Pose or on Sanskrit called “Shalabasana”, and this pose is an excellent back strengthener and it also build your core muscles.
The research on yoga for neck pain
Yoga is often recommended as a complementary therapy for chronic pain. The idea behind this is that yoga is accessible to anyone at any stage of health and has no negative side effects. These factors don’t matter as much, though, if the therapy is not effective.
In multiple studies, yoga has been proven effective at relieving chronic neck and back pain. According to the American Pain Society, a German study has shown that yoga appears to be beneficial for patients dealing with the effects of chronic neck pain. Not only does it help with the physical symptoms but also with each patient’s overall quality of life and mental wellbeing.
“The mainstay of conservative treatment for neck pain is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, and the evidence of its effectiveness is contradictory while side effects, such as nausea and dizziness, are well known. The authors noted that one type of yoga, called iyengar yoga, has been shown effective in other pain syndromes, including low back pain. This activity uses supportive props and the sequences of postures can be tailored to address an individual’s medical problem. No randomized controlled clinical trials have been published to assess the efficacy of iyengar yoga for adults with chronic neck pain.”
Types of yoga
Yoga in particular appears to work very well to relieve pain, with the added benefit of improved quality of life and psychological well-being. These studies provide enough evidence to support the recommendation that yoga be used in conjunction with other therapies as part of a pain management plan for either acute or chronic neck pain.
While Iyengar yoga, with its focus on proper alignment and held poses, seems to be the most effective type of yoga for neck pain, many of the recommended stretches cross yoga disciplines and can be done in or out of a yoga class. Typically students will progress from simple poses to more complex ones as they begin to master the forms. Iynegar yoga also pays special attention to the timing and transitions from one pose to the next.
Yoga is easy to do in your own home or classes are available at community centers, gyms, or even parks all over the country. Talk with your doctor about taking up a yoga practice to help alleviate chronic neck pain.
Neck pain exercises for posture
When thinking about good posture, the thoracic and lumbar spine often first come to mind. These sections of the spine comprise the upper and lower back, respectively. The well-worn advice to keep the spine straight and shoulders back may help prevent back pain, but that leaves out the very important cervical spine that supports the neck. The neck twists and turns, bending backward and forward. Movement is healthy, but poor posture, including bending forward over mobile phones and computer screens, can lead to pain over time.
Neck pain is one of the most common forms of reported pain, second only to back pain. Fortunately, taking care to hold the neck in a healthy postural position helps to prevent aching while supporting a healthy neck. Try these neck pain exercises and postural habits while sitting, standing, and sleeping.
23. Neck pain exercises to practice while sitting
Sitting at the computer, hunched forward with the neck bent to see what interesting things are happening on the screen may be one of modern life’s most frequent postures, but it kills the neck.
The healthiest way to sit at a desk is with the neck straight. Achieving this requires a properly angled computer monitor, one in direct line with the eyes. The neck should be in line with the torso, with the upper body forming a 90-degree angle with the thighs.
This may sound great, but what about all those hours peering over tablets or smart phones? A Harvard School of Public Health study found that unhealthy neck postures—mainly the bent forward formation known as flexion—are more commonly adopted while viewing mobile devices than while working at a computer. Flexion can lead to neck pain. To prevent problems, Harvard researchers recommend holding tablets and phones higher, in direct line with the eyes, or placing them on a table to promote healthy alignment.
24. Exercises for neck pain while standing
Walking down the street, the neck should rise in a straight line from the back, much like sitting. Be sure to keep the shoulders back and the head tall.
Many people adopt a slight hunch from sitting for many hours during the day. Reverse the hunch while walking by making sure to keep the spine straight and the neck in a neutral position.
25. Preventing neck pain from sleeping
Neck posture while sleeping is very important, and also, unfortunately, difficult to control. Set yourself up for a good night’s rest by creating a healthy bed setup with supportive pillows to avoid neck pain after sleeping.
Sleeping on the side or the back are the best way to sleep for neck pain, according to Harvard Health Publications. Back sleepers may want to try supporting the neck’s spinal curve with a rounded pillow while using a second, flatter pillow to support the head. Some of the best pillows for neck pain come with built-in neck support to achieve this positioning. Pillows filled with feather or made of memory foam are healthy because they support the unique contour of the head and neck.
Want even more neck pain exercises?
If you’re still looking for more neck pain exercises, we recommend the following great resources.
26. Runner’s World two-minute exercise for chronic neck pain
A runner and someone who suffers from neck pain? We can’t recommend this quick two-minute routine of neck pain exercises enough!
27. The Arthritis Foundation’s neck pain exercise routine
For arthritis patients, the Arthritis Foundation provides some specific guidance for incorporating neck pain exercises into your workout routine.
28. Active.com’s yoga for neck pain exercises
This easy series of yoga stretches and exercises are quick to fit into your daily routine.
29. Yoga Journal’s in-depth discussion of yoga for neck pain poses
Yoga Journal always does a great job demonstrating the best way to practice yoga, safely and effectively.
30. Self’s stretches for neck pain
These exercises for neck pain are a great resource for those of us stuck at a desk all day!
31-35. Five neck pain stretches from Ask Doctor Jo
Want even more neck pain stretches and guidance? Doctor Jo provides some more great advice for practicing healthy, safe neck pain stretches. Check out her video for more recommendations for stretches for neck pain.