Stretches and exercises for neck pain can offer relief, but it’s important to assess your pain level first. Here’s a guide to help you determine whether at-home neck exercises are right for you.
The phrase “pain in the neck” rings true for many people — in fact, neck pain is one of the top types of pain reported, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.
Neck pain can have many causes. Certain exercises and stretches can help you prevent neck pain or recover if you’re already experiencing neck pain.
That said, if do have neck pain, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional before starting new exercise or stretching programs.
This article guides you on when you should or shouldn’t do neck pain exercises. It also shares some useful stretches and exercises to help prevent future neck injuries.
Neck exercises can be helpful in restoring strength and mobility of the neck and surrounding musculature.
Experts recommend including in your routine some neck stretching and strengthening exercises a few times per week, even if you do not have any neck issues.
If you’re recovering from a neck injury, it’s very important to get clearance from your doctor or physical therapist before starting or returning to exercise. They may recommend certain exercises.
If you’re currently experiencing neck pain, the Canadian C-Spine rules are an objective way to determine whether you should see a healthcare professional before trying any neck exercises.
You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you have been in an accident with a high risk of injury, which includes:
- any immediate (acute) injury to someone over age 65
- a fall from more than 1 meter, 3 feet, or about 5 stairs
- an axial or direct load to the head, such as in a diving injury
- a high speed car accident (speeds greater than 100 kilometers per hour, or 62 miles per hour)
- a motorized recreational vehicle accident (like a motorcycle)
- a bicycle collision
You should also see a doctor if you have been in an accident with a low risk of injury, such as a rear-end car accident, and you are not able to turn your head 45 degrees from side to side (bringing your chin over your collarbone).
If any of the above is true, you should not do neck exercises. Instead, consult a healthcare professional to identify the root of the issue. They’ll also be able to recommend appropriate treatment options.
If you begin to experience new or worse pain while exercising, stop the exercise and consult your healthcare professional.
Other signs you should stop exercising include a tingling sensation or pins and needles that radiate down the arm, dizziness, balance or coordination issues, or difficulty performing the exercise.
If you have not received medical clearance by your healthcare professional, you should avoid neck exercises until you do.
If you’re experiencing new or ongoing neck pain, it’s always wise to consult a medical professional, who can perform an assessment and give you a proper diagnosis. Since neck injuries can be very serious, it’s important that you exercise only at a level that is safe and comfortable for you.
If you’re unsure, it’s best to consult a physical therapist who can perform a proper assessment and give personalized recommendations.
You can also determine whether an exercise is right for you by using a pain scale. To do this, all you need to do is rate your pain on a scale from 0 to 10:
- 0: You are experiencing no discomfort or pain.
- 1 to 3: You have very minimal discomfort and little to no pain.
- 4 to 6: You have some discomfort and mild to moderate pain.
- 7 to 9: You’re experiencing a lot of discomfort and moderate to severe pain.
- 10: You’re experiencing severe pain.
If you rate your pain a 5 or above, it’s best to stop the exercise and consult a healthcare professional.
Also, if your pain worsens with exercise, it’s important to stop the exercise and speak with your healthcare professional.
If you’ve received medical clearance from your healthcare professional, you can perform these exercises once per day or a few times per week.
- Sit in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor, back straight, and arms at your side. Alternatively, stand straight. In either position, be sure your head is facing forward.
- Gently turn your head to the right until you feel a light stretch. It’s important to keep your chin parallel to the ground. Hold this for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Return your head to the starting position, then turn your head to the left, holding for another 2 to 3 seconds.
- Repeat this sequence 5 times.
Forward head tilt
- Sit in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor, back straight, and arms at your side. Alternatively, stand straight, with your spine neutral. In either position, be sure your head is facing forward.
- Slowly tilt your head down so that your chin moves toward your chest until you feel a gentle stretch. Only go as far as is comfortable for you. Be sure not to drop into a forward head posture. Instead, tilt your chin down while lengthening the back of your neck.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds.
- Repeat 5 times.
- Stand straight, with your arms at your sides and head facing forward.
- Slowly bring both shoulders forward and up. Then, bring your shoulders back and down. This should be done in one fluid motion, as if you’re drawing circles with your shoulders.
- Continue this for 8 rotations. Then, reverse the motion and perform another 8 rotations.
If your neck is feeling tight, these stretches may help.
- Sit in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor, back straight, and arms at your side.
- Look straight ahead and slowly tilt your neck toward your left ear. Only go as far as it feels comfortable and gives a gentle stretch. For a greater stretch, slightly lower your right shoulder.
- Hold this for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Levator scapulae stretch
- Sit in a chair, with your feet flat on the floor, back straight, arms at your side, and head facing straight ahead.
- Start by taking your right hand and grabbing the base of your chair (your right shoulder should be slightly pulled down).
- Then, gently turn your head 45 degrees to the left.
- Next, take your left hand and place it on the backside of your head and gently press into it so that you lower your chin (imagine you’re gently looking into the left pocket of your shirt).
- Hold this for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side to stretch the levator scapula on the other side.
Neck pain is one of the most common forms of musculoskeletal pain.
While it’s important to consult a healthcare professional if you’re experiencing neck pain, performing stretches and exercises to strengthen and mobilize the neck may help reduce common, everyday neck pain and discomfort.
Still, you should only perform neck stretches and exercises if you’re not experiencing any pain, which you can assess by rating your pain on a scale from 0 to 10. Better yet, work with a physical therapist who can provide an assessment and personalized recommendations.
Whether you have neck pain or not, doing neck stretches and exercises is an important way to keep your neck healthy and strong.