Stretching Exercises for Chronic Neck Pain

Stretching Exercises for Chronic Neck Pain

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.

Do you suffer from chronic neck pain? Do you have these symptoms?

  • headaches
  • tightness
  • spasms
  • limited range of motion of the neck
  • tingling or numbness down the arms

It’s not unusual for people to start developing neck problems especially if they work at a computer all day.

Just like any other muscle in the body, the muscles of the neck also need to be conditioned in order to keep and improve range of motion and to keep pain away. After long hours in front of a computer, heavy weight lifting at the gym or at work, or sudden trauma, it is important to stretch and exercise our necks.

The following stretches and exercises have proved to be helpful in individuals with chronic neck pain:

Note: Each stretch and exercise should be performed to patient tolerance and not to the level of feeling pain.

If a neck exercise feels painful, it should either be modified or discontinued. A medical professional can help ensure that neck exercises are done in a manner that does not cause pain.

Along with these exercises, individuals can make sure to take preventative measures in their everyday routine. For example, for those who sit at their jobs for long periods of time should try to make sure to get up and walk around every hour or two for a few minutes to stretch.

Also, make sure to adjust your desk chairs to the proper height so that the hips are slightly higher than your knees.

When reading or typing from other materials, make sure to raise the book or page to eye level instead of looking downwards at the table. When traveling for long periods, take a small pillow or rolled up towel and place it between the neck and the headrest to help support the neck’s natural curve.

Even when individuals are at home or running daily errands, it is important to not to cradle the phone between the head and shoulder and to make sure you are not sleeping with pillows that are too thick and not to have too many pillows under your head.

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.

It is important to address neck pain right away to prevent it from becoming a chronic injury. The exercises shown are initial stretches and exercises given to help reduce existing neck pain and preventing further symptoms. These are easy changes to make throughout your everyday lives to keep optimum health of the neck joints and muscles.


Many individuals also sit for long periods and neglect their posture and own health due to stress and busy lifestyles. Although, there are several sources of neck pain, there are small changes that each individual can make to prevent furthering the causes.


Benefits of Neck 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.

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:

Depending upon the specific diagnosis and pain level, different exercises may be recommended for neck pain. It is important for patients to seek a cervical spine specialist who is trained to evaluate neck pain and develop an individualized exercise program.

If the patient’s neck hurts too much to do neck exercises, other treatments may be recommended first, such as medications to help reduce the pain enough for the neck to start moving. Some other tips that may alleviate pain and make the exercises more comfortable include:

  • Prior to exercise, apply a heating pad to warm up stiff muscles and joints and make it easier to stretch.
  • After exercise, apply a cold pack (or frozen bag of peas wrapped in a towel) to reduce inflammation in the joints and muscles.

1) Corner Stretch:

  • The individual is instructed to face towards a corner, feet together, and forearms placed against the wall.
  • They are to lean in as far as possible until a stretch is felt in front of the shoulders and chest.
  • They are to hold this stretch for approximately 30 seconds-1 minute.
  • This is to be done 3-5X/ day as needed

1) Corner Stretch:

2. Chin Tuck- Neck Retraction

This move will help stretch the deep cervical extensors that are often at the root of forward head posture.

These muscles are creating the posture that’s sending the levator scaps into overdrive by pulling the head down and the neck into extension. This chin tuck stretch will provide length to these muscles and help them start to release some of that excessive tension.

  • The individual is instructed to push their chin straight back and hold for 10-15 seconds.

  • This exercise can be done several times easily throughout the day at work, driving, etc.

  • This is to be done in 5 rep increments at first, then the individual may slowly increase to 10 reps per session.

  • Approximately 5-10 sessions per day can be done as needed

Chin Tuck- Neck Retraction

3. Ear to Shoulder Stretch

  • The individual attempts to touch their left ear to their left shoulder and the stretch will be felt on the right side.
  • Patient then attempts to touch their right ear to their right shoulder and the stretch will be felt on the left side.
  • The opposite arm is suggested to be put towards their lower back to drop the shoulder and further deepen the stretch. They will hold the stretch for 20 seconds and is to be done as needed throughout the day approximately 5 reps per session, 3-5 sessions per day.
  • The patient can do this exercise throughout the day at work or at home

Ear to Shoulder Stretch

4. Flexion Stretch-Chin to Chest

  • The individual is instructed to bring their chin to their chest until a stretch is felt in the back of their neck.
  • Stretch is held for 10-15 seconds for about 10 reps as needed throughout the day, approximately 3-5 sessions per day

Flexion Stretch-Chin

5. Isometric Neck Strengthening

  • The individual is instructed to start in neutral, straight position. They will use their own hand to provide resistance in all ranges of motion (about 10% of their own strength).
  • This is to strengthen the deep neck flexors and improve posture.
  • This is another exercise that can be done several times throughout the day 5-10 reps at a time in all directions, approximately 5 sessions per day 

5) Isometric Neck Strengthening

6. Arm pit stretch:

  •  This is a great stretch to unload your neck and shoulder. I call it this as you are pulling your head towards your armpit!


  • Hold this for at 1 minute and perform 3 times daily.

  • To get a better stretch it may help to hold on to a bench or table with the opposite hand to stop the shoulder rising up.


neck stretch for levator scapulae

7. Levator Scapula Stretch

As always, it is important to start in the correct position when stretching. Hunching over while sitting prevents you from stretching as well as you could if you were sitting up straight. Be aware of the rotation of your head. When you have turned your head 45 degrees and you are starting to bend it forward, you must make sure that everything is in line so that you do not pull the muscle at a bad angle.

  • Faced with these tight levator scapulae symptoms, most folks will try a classic levator scapulae stretch.
  • In this stretch, you sit on a chair or bench and take your chin down towards one shoulder – let’s say your left.
  • You then use your left hand on top of your head to encourage your chin down, while using your right hand to grab the chair behind you and resist.
Repeat2-3 Times
Hold30 Seconds
Complete1 Set
Perform2 Times per day


The levator scapulae runs between the upper part of the shoulder blades and the top four cervical vertebrae. It is a thin, flat muscle located just below the upper part of the trapezius.

It rotates and tilts the head to the side. When both sides of the muscle work simultaneously, it raises the shoulder girdle and bends the head backward.


The levator scapulae is shortened by bad posture, by permanently raising the shoulder or the shoulder girdle, or by holding a phone between the cheek and the shoulder.

Since the levator scapulae raises the shoulder girdle, it also works statically in times of stress since the shoulders are often raised in response to tension.


• Difficulty rotating the head

• Difficulty placing the chin on the chest


• Headache at the back of the head

• Kink in the neck


You should be able to rotate the head approximately 90 degrees and to bend the neck approximately 45 degrees to the side.


Avoid this exercise if it causes pain in the neck.


• Failing to sit up straight
• Compressing the neck instead of moving the head forward and down
• Rotating the head either too much or not enough
• Movement does not follow the direction of the nose straight toward the knee

7.a. Forward Head Posture

Forward head posture has become a huge problem.

Thanks in part to all the time we spend hunched over our phones or computers, this improper positioning of our head and neck has become extremely common, and with it, levator scap pain.

  • Forward head posture contributes to levator scapulae pain because when you hold your head in this way, it requires constant firing of your levator scaps – muscles that are not designed to be a postural, long-firing muscle.

    When these muscles are forced into over use, they become chronically tight and painful symptoms like trigger points and headaches develop.

    And, remember that forward head posture changes the line of action of your scaps, exaggerating the anterior tilt of your shoulder blade. This can cause a whole new set of alignment issues and muscular imbalances.

    To fight this, there are a couple of great, simple strategies.

7.b. Thoracic Kyphosis


The second major root cause behind levator scapulae pain is very closely related to forward head posture – thoracic kyphosis.

Thoracic kyphosis is an excessive rounding in the upper back (i.e., creating a hunch back posture).

Thoracic Roller Extension

This is a simple joint mobilization technique which will help encourage mobility of your upper back.

  • Lay so that your thoracic spine is resting over a foam roller – bend your knees and plant your feet on the ground for support
  • Start to extend back over the foam roller, keeping your hands behind your head to support your neck
  • Flex your spine to come back up to neutral
  • Move up or down on the foam roller to hit a different segment of the thoracic spine and repeat

7.c. Dysfunctional upward rotation scapular movement pattern

The final common root cause of levator scap neck pain is dysfunctional scapular movement.

This issue usually presents itself in upward rotation of the scaps, which is required to fully lift your arms up overhead.

If the muscles that are supposed to support this motion (mostly your trapezius and serratus anterior muscles) aren’t firing correctly, your levator scap will step in and compensate in the elevating of your scaps.

Yet again, this is not the intended function of your scaps and will lead to chronic tightness and tension.

This is a common problem and there are a lot of strategies you can use to address it. I have an entire article devoted to scapulohumeral rhythm and scapular dyskinesis (or the dysfunctional movement of the scapulae).


levator scapulae stretch scapulohumeral rhythm