Muscle tension in the neck is a common complaint. Your neck contains flexible muscles that support the weight of your head. These muscles can be injured and irritated from overuse and postural problems.
Neck pain can also sometimes be attributed to worn joints or compressed nerves, but neck tension typically refers to muscle spasms or soft tissue injuries. The top of the spine is also located in the neck and can be a source of pain, too.
Neck tension can come on suddenly or slowly. It’s not unusual to wake up with tense muscles in your neck after sleeping in an odd position or straining your muscles while exercising.
Ongoing neck tension that comes and goes over the course of many months may have less noticeable causes, like grinding your teeth or hunching over the computer. There are a range of activities that can affect the muscles in your neck.
We dive into some treatments, prevention strategies, and possible reasons for your neck tension:
The symptoms of neck tension, which may come on suddenly or slowly, include:
- muscle tightness
- muscle spasms
- muscle stiffness
- difficulty turning your head in certain directions
- pain that worsens in certain positions
Depending on the root cause of your neck tension, you may benefit from one or more of these tension treatments:
Neck tension exercises and stretches
To relieve tension in the neck, you can try a series of neck stretches. There are many yoga poses that may benefit your neck, but to target the neck muscles directly, consider the following stretches:
Seated neck stretch
- Sit in a comfortable seated position, either cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your feet able to touch the ground.
- Place your left hand under your bottom and your right hand on top of your head.
- Gently pull your head to the right, so that your ear is almost touching your shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
Chin to chest stretch
- Sitting cross-legged on the floor, clasp your hands on top of your head, elbows pointing outward.
- Gently pull your chin to your chest and hold for 30 seconds.
Cheek push stretch
- From a sitting or standing position, place your right hand on your right cheek.
- Turning to look over your left shoulder, gently push your right cheek as far as you can and focus your gaze on a spot behind you.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
Acupuncture for neck tension
Acupuncture is a treatment that uses fine needles to stimulate certain points on your body. It has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. But there’s currently little consensus on if acupuncture is an effective treatment for neck tension and pain.
Results from some studies have suggested that acupuncture may help with certain types of muscular pain, including neck tension, but more research is needed.
One 2008 study that included 46 people who had tension neck syndrome (TNS), compared three treatment methods: physical therapy (exercises) alone, acupuncture alone, and physical therapy together with acupuncture.
The study found that while all three methods improved symptoms for participants, using exercises and acupuncture together to treat neck pain was more effective than either treatment used alone.
More neck tension treatments
There are several other things you can do that may benefit you, including:
- getting a massage
- applying heat or ice
- soaking in salt water or a warm bath
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve)
- practicing meditation
- doing yoga
We’ve mentioned the treatments for when you’ve already got neck tension, but what about for preventing it from happening again? You may have to make some adjustments to your long-term habits to relieve some of the tension in your neck.
Here are several ways you can manage and prevent tension in your neck and shoulders:
- Get ergonomic. Adjust your workstation so that your computer is at eye level. Adjust the height of your chair, desk, and computer until you find the right fit. Consider using a standing desk, but make sure you do it correctly.
- Think about your posture. Improve your posture when sitting andstanding. Keep your hips, shoulders, and ears in a straight line. Consider setting alarms to check in with how you’re holding yourself throughout the day.
- Take breaks. Take breaks while you work and travel to get up, move your body, and stretch your neck and upper body. This can benefit more than just your muscles, it can also benefit your eyes and mental well-being.
- Sleep on it. Improve your sleeping position with a smaller, flatter, firmer pillow.
- Take the weight off your shoulders — literally. Use a rolling bag instead of carrying heavy bags over your shoulders. You may want to do a monthly cleaning to make sure you’re only carrying the essentials, and not weighing yourself down with more burden for your neck and back.
- Start moving. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to keep your body in good condition.
- Practice mindfulness through meditation and yoga. Practicing either yoga or meditation can help reduce psychological and physical stress. Yoga can count as part of your daily exercise, too!
- See a doctor or dentist when necessary. If you’re experiencing chronic neck tension, or aren’t sure what’s causing it, it definitely doesn’t hurt to see a doctor. You should also consult a dentist about teeth grinding or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) treatments. They may be able to provide you with an overnight bite guard or other treatment option.
There are many possible reasons why you may be experiencing neck tension. Common causes include:
- Repetitive motion.People who work in occupations that require them to perform repetitive movements often strain the muscles in their neck.
- Poor posture.The average adult’s head weighs 10 to 11 pounds. When this weight isn’t properly supported by good posture, the neck muscles are forced to work harder than they should, which can cause strain.
- The computer.Many people spend their entire day behind a computer. Hunching over the computer isn’t a natural position for the body. This form of poor posture is a particularly common cause of strained neck muscles.
- The phone.Whether you’re holding it between your ear and shoulder at work, or are hunched over it playing games and checking social media at home, the phone is a common cause of poor neck posture. Check out these tips to avoid text neck.
- Teeth grinding and TMJ.When you grind or clench your teeth, it puts pressure on the muscles in your neck and jaw. This pressure can strain the muscles in your neck, causing ongoing pain. There are exercises you can do to promote more relaxed jaw muscles.
- Exercise and sports.Whether you’re lifting weights in a way that engages the neck muscles, or whipping your head around during a sports game, physical activity is a common cause of minor neck injury and strain.
- Poor sleep position.When you sleep, your head and neck should be aligned with the rest of your body. Sleeping with large pillows that elevate your neck too much can cause tension to build up while you sleep.
- Heavy bags.Carrying heavy bags, especially those with straps going over your shoulder, can throw your body out of balance. This can put strain on one side of your neck, which allows tension to build.
- Stress.Psychological stress has a powerful impact on the whole body. When you’re stressed, you may inadvertently tense up and strain the muscles in your neck. Neck tension stress affects many people.
- Trauma.When you’re injured, such as in a car accident or fall, you may experience whiplash. Whiplash can happen anytime the neck snaps back forcefully, straining the muscles.
- Tension headaches. Tension headaches are mild to moderate dull headaches that typically affect the forehead. While neck tension can cause tension headaches, tension headaches can also cause neck pain and tenderness.
Neck tension on its own isn’t usually an emergency and often resolves with time. On the other hand, you should consult a doctor immediately if you’ve been in a car accident or experienced another impact injury.
See a doctor soon if you have neck tension accompanied by other symptoms like:
- pain, including in your arms or head
- persistent headache
Otherwise, call your doctor if your neck pain is severe or doesn’t improve after a few days.
Takeaway Neck tension is a common problem affecting people all over the world. There are many possible causes. Treatment for neck pain often involves a combination of strategies. Most neck tension resolves on its own. Consult your doctor if you have questions or concerns about the cause of your neck tension or if it doesn’t improve or gets worse.