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5 Exercises and Stretches for Neck Pain

When it comes to that nagging pain in the neck, movement and breathing can be keys to relief


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Neck pain is almost as common as lower back pain in older adults. As many as 10 to 20 percent say they experience neck discomfort every day, and up to 70 percent will experience it at some point in their lives, according to the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.

Because there are many causes of neck pain, spine experts say make sure to consult a physician if you have severe pain causing radiating or throbbing pain down the neck and arms or if you feel any numbness or difficulty in walking. Causes of neck pain can include injury from a fall or an accident, degeneration of the spine’s discs, osteoporosis, a pinched nerve from tissue inflammation and osteoarthritis, which can cause a narrowing of the spine, called stenosis.

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But most commonly, the culprit is strains and sprains to the muscles and ligaments, says David Kohns, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and clinical assistant professor in physical medicine, rehabilitation and pain medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

“The most common type of conditions that we come upon within the neck tend to be myofascial in nature or muscle-related pain,” Kohns says.

The reasons for these injuries are varied but most often are related to how people habitually hold their head and shoulders, spine experts say. The head weighs between 10 and 12 pounds, and if it is positioned out of alignment with the rest of the spine — for instance, looking forward and down at a mobile phone or laptop — an extra load is placed on neck joints, reducing range of motion and potentially causing discomfort.

“We spend our time with our necks in a forward position looking down and texting,” says Robert Medcalf, director of spine rehabilitation with Atlanta-based Resurgens Spine Center. “Those are the positions and movements that many times bring about an onset of [pain] symptoms.”

Science also shows that aging and lack of movement lead the muscles covering connective tissue, called fascia, to tighten throughout the body, creating sensitive areas called trigger points. This is how a seemingly harmless action like turning the head can trigger pain or muscle spasms.

“As we get older, fascia may get sticky and cause muscle stiffness,” says Christine Goertz, professor of musculoskeletal research at the Duke Clinical Research Institute and vice chair for implementation of spine health innovations in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Duke University. “And that can interrupt the normal movement of your body.”

Stress-related muscle tension or sedentary behavior (i.e., sitting too much) can also be causes of pain. For example, someone stressed and sitting for many hours may repeatedly hunch their shoulders, pulling the head forward and out of alignment, and cause tight muscles.

The good news is that most of the time, neck pain can be treated with an over-the-counter pain medication, a massage, a heating pad or an ice pack. Movement and stretching can also hydrate and loosen fascia and muscles, Goertz says. But if the pain returns, which it does for around a third of people, adding in a regular breathing and exercise routine targeted on the shoulders and neck muscles can help.

“Movement is probably one of the most important things that people can do to minimize the risk of having an acute pain experience turn into a chronic condition,” says Kohns.

Strategies and stretches for the neck

“We want to perform movements in the opposite direction to balance out the mechanical forces on our spine,” says Medcalf, who uses the McKenzie method with his clients. The McKenzie method is a system developed by physical therapist Robin McKenzie in the 1950s for assessing, diagnosing and treating patients with spine and extremity pain.

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The aim is to help people find which patterns of movement may be causing discomfort in the spine, and then find opposing movements that can bring relief.

First, get up and walk around regularly, especially after sitting for long periods. Taking a break and standing will naturally encourage head and shoulders to draw back, Medcalf says.

To prevent and ease neck pain, spine experts recommend trying one or two of the exercises listed below or in the accompanying video. Gradually add in more exercises to increase the challenge. If they feel good, do them twice a day.

If any of the exercises leads to increasing pain, stop doing them and call your doctor. “Sharp pain with movement, especially for older adults, could be an underlying condition, so you should get it checked out,” Goertz says.

Try these for relieving pain and stretching a stiff neck.

1. Box breathing

Slow, deep breathing can trigger the calming part of the nervous system and loosen tension in the neck. Kohns suggests to his clients a focused imagery-based breathing exercise called box breathing. The technique is a slow, controlled pattern that Navy SEALS have adopted to help them cope with high-stress situations, where the person imagines a box and follows their inhales and exhales around the sides of the box. “A lot of the muscles in the neck are accessory, respiratory muscles,” Kohns says. “So, starting off with some basic box breathing is going to send a general relaxing tone throughout all the muscles.”

Here’s how to do it:

Sit in a chair. You can do this exercise with your eyes open or closed. If your eyes are open, look straight ahead. Imagine there is a box floating in front of you. Focus your eyes on the bottom left corner of the box. As you inhale, imagine your breath tracing the box’s left side. Pause. Then exhale, tracing the box’s top side. Pause. Inhale, tracing the box’s right side. Pause. Exhale, tracing the box’s bottom side. Pause. Repeat this breathing pattern five times.  

2. Head retraction

To counter the forward motion of the head, try an exercise of taking the head in a backward pattern — called head retraction, Medcalf says. With this exercise, the head is encouraged to move backwards as far it can with the goal of realigning the neck with the rest of the spine. This movement approach draws from the McKenzie method, which research has shown can reduce back and neck pain.

Sit in a chair, looking straight ahead. Place one or two fingers on your chin and then slightly tuck your chin. (Don’t tilt your head up.) While keeping your gaze ahead, use the fingers to direct your head slowly but steadily backward as if someone has gotten very close to your face and you want to create distance between you and that person. When your head has gone as far back as it can, hold the position for three to five seconds and then let your fingers go and relax. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

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3. Thoracic spine extensions

Sit in a chair with a back that comes about midway to the upper back. Then clasp your hands behind your neck with elbows pointed forward and slowly bend backward over the edge of the chair. Hold for three to five seconds and then slowly release out of the stretch. Repeat five times. If the edge of the chair causes discomfort, you can place a towel over it or place a towel behind your shoulders. See a variation of this exercise that’s also a great stretch in No. 1 of the video below.

4. Shoulder rolls

In a sitting or standing position, raise both shoulders toward your ears. Then slowly roll the shoulders backward and down. Then roll them forward toward the front of the body and up toward your ears, making slow continuing circles. Repeat five times. Then do the rolls in the opposite direction. Repeat five times and relax.

5. Seated reverse shoulder fly

Sit on the edge of the chair and lean forward. Tuck your chin. Extend your arms in line with your knees, palms facing each other. Raise your arms away from each other and out to your sides. Pause and then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat the exercise 10-15 times.

Video: 5 Stretches to Help Your Back and Neck
Try these exercises to stretch your neck and back and relieve strain.

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