Stretching Exercises for Chronic Neck Pain
Neck exercises are a common part of almost any treatment plan for neck pain. A typical neck exercise program will consist of a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises, aerobic conditioning, and possibly trigger point exercises.
When neck, chest, and upper back muscles become weakened, tightened, and/or elongated, the shoulders can become rounded and the head sags forward. This poor posture in turn puts more stress on the cervical spine’s facet joints and intervertebral discs, as well as the muscles and ligaments.
Don’t exercise if you have severe neck pain or weakness in your hands or arms. If you get it while you exercise, stop right away and call your doctor.
Poor posture with the head too far forward may lead to chronic or recurrent neck pain that can also be accompanied by stiff joints, upper back pain, shoulder blade pain, and headaches. Fortunately, a neck exercise program may be able to help address most of these symptoms as follows:
Flexibility and stretching exercises can expand or preserve the range of motion and elasticity in affected cervical (neck) joints, and thus relieve the stiffness that accompanies pain. As a general rule, neck stretching is best done every day, and some stretches can be done several times a day.
Specific strengthening exercises can help maintain improved posture, which in turn can lessen or eliminate recurrent flare-ups of pain. As a general rule, neck strengthening exercises should be done every other day to allow muscles time to repair themselves.
Aerobic exercise, commonly called “cardio,” is fueled by a steady intake of oxygen and keeps the heart rate and breathing levels elevated for the duration of the workout. Aerobic exercises increase blood flow to the muscles and soft tissues of the neck and upper back, which can help loosen the muscles and increase range of motion. In addition, after about 30 or more minutes of aerobic exercise, the body’s natural painkillers—called endorphins—are released and can help reduce neck pain.
Aerobic exercise can be done every day. Some good options include using a treadmill, stationary bike, or an elliptical machine, as well as an upper body ergometer or arm bike. For someone who has not done aerobic conditioning in a while, going for a brisk walk can be a good start.
Note: Each stretch and exercise should be performed to patient tolerance and not to the level of feeling pain.
4 Easy Stretches for Neck and Shoulder Pain
- Keeping the shoulders back, bring the chin toward the chest by bending the head straight forward. A slight stretch will be felt in the back of the neck.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
Lateral Flexion Stretch
- Start in an upright, standing position.
- Keeping the shoulders even, bring one ear toward the shoulder by bending the head to one side. A slight stretch will be felt in the side of the neck.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.
Levator Scapula Stretch
- Stand straight, raise the right hand and elbow, and place it on a nearby wall or door jamb.
- While keeping everything else still, rotate the head to the left about 45° (which is about halfway toward the shoulder).
- Tilt the chin downward to the left collarbone until a good stretch is felt on the back right side of the neck.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, or as tolerated. Repeat on the other side.
- Face the corner of a room or a doorway.
- Position both feet together, about 2 feet away from the corner.
- Place a forearm on each wall (or door jamb) with the elbows slightly below shoulder height.
- Lean forward until a good stretch is felt across the chest and shoulders. If any pain is felt, the stretch can be reduced or stopped altogether.
- Hold the stretch 30 to 60 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times.
Stretching a muscle to the full extent of your ability and holding it for 15 to 30 seconds is what’s called a static stretch, and there’s no harm in stretching that way as long you don’t stretch until it hurts.
But studies suggest a dynamic stretch is just as effective, and sometimes better, especially before your workout.
A dynamic stretch, like the Standing Cat-Camel, moves a muscle group fluidly through an entire range of motion.