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December 16, 2021 7 min read

Chances are you've had a moment where you woke up and noticed something wasn't right. Your neck was tense and tight, making it hard and painful to move. This could have been caused by sleeping wrong,  poor posture, overuse, among other things.

Neck pain can be common in adults, and studies suggest that  14-71% of adults will experience it some time in their lives. It is not only inconvenient and uncomfortable, but it can cause back pain, shoulder and arm pain, and headaches.

It's important to understand what's causing your neck pain in order to figure out solutions and potentially prevent chronic pain. Not all solutions will require visiting a physical therapist; sometimes all you need is a good stretch and a foam roller.

You might be lost at where to even start finding the root of the issue, so we'll break down what may be causing your neck pain and some best practices to help.

What is Neck Tension?

Neck Tension

Neck tension refers to muscle tightness and can sometimes cause spasms and headaches. It affects your neck, of course, but it can also spread to your shoulders, arms, and upper back.

Some of the more neglected muscles in the body are the  muscles in your neck. There are over 20 muscles here that help support your head and stabilize your spine. The biggest muscle in your neck is the sternocleidomastoid. This muscle runs along either side of your cervical spine and is responsible for rotating your head and flexing your neck. When this muscle is tight, it can cause pain, stiffness, and a limited range of motion.

Common Neck Tension Causes

Neck tension is painful and annoying, but it is common. Several factors can contribute to it, and it can be as simple as sleeping wrong. It's important to understand what it is but just as important to understand what causes it, so we can help to fix it.

Improper Form

If you're a lifter, you must know how important proper form is for a safe and effective workout. Some beginners often make the mistake of poor form because of underdeveloped muscles or simply not knowing the proper way. A common mistake you may see is rounding at the shoulders when the spine should be in neutral. In exercises such as the deadlift and bent-over row, it is extremely important to keep a neutral spine to avoid potential injuries and neck pain.

Poor Posture

One of the risk factors of neck pain is poor posture. Unfortunately, this is common in adults as well and can be caused by underdeveloped postural muscles, slouching while seated, staring down at your phone, stress, genetics, and more. Poor posture could lead to muscle imbalances as the neck muscles try to adapt to get your head on straight. Some muscles become looser and some become weaker, ultimately causing that painful and stiff neck.


Overuse of the muscles in the upper body can cause neck and  upper back pain. Overusing a muscle is exactly what it sounds like and can be caused by too much frequency or intensity of an activity. These overused muscles can also be called trigger points and can be painful not only in that specific area but the surrounding areas as well.

How to Relieve Neck Tension

Luckily, neck tension is typically not a symptom of a deeper issue, and it can be relieved by stretching or massaging. Stretching is important because it helps keep your muscles flexible, which can improve your range of motion and help prevent injuries. Practicing yoga poses is a great low-impact way to stretch your muscles, while also improving strength and balance.

Studies suggest that yoga can be used as a treatment for chronic neck pain relief.

While stretching reaps several benefits, massage therapy is one of the oldest methods for pain treatment and has stuck around for good reason. Getting a massage can help with muscle soreness, tightness, and tension, as well as help improve circulation.

Stretching and massage therapy can be excellent short and long-term solutions for neck tension, so what if you could combine the two without even leaving your house?

That's where foam rolling comes in. Foam rolling requires the application of pressure to your muscles and can help release fascia tension.

When foam rolling and static stretching are compared, foam rolling provides greater benefits to physical performance. You can firmly roll the foam roller on the tender spots, or you can rely on your body weight to roll on it. Either way, you can release your muscle tension in a quick, cheap, and effective way.

Benefits of Using a Foam Roller

Foam rolling is a great way to give yourself a deep tissue massage without going to massage therapy. It's a self-myofascial release that can be used with tools like tennis balls, rolling pins, or the most popular, the standard foam roller.

  • Relieves muscle knots and reduces soreness
  • You can use a foam roller almost anywhere on your body for a simple and quick self-massage
  • Increased blood flow, which is important for  recovery and overall health

Foam Roller Exercises

Using a foam roller regularly could help to alleviate neck tension, but it's important to understand the best ways to use one to help avoid adding to the tension. These neck exercises below are quick and can be done anywhere.

Suboccipital Stretch

The suboccipital muscles are the muscles right at the base of your skull where it meets your neck. They are responsible for maintaining posture and head extension, flexion, and lateral movement. These muscles can become tense easily due to factors such as slouching, teeth grinding, or an injury.

Loosening these muscles with a foam roller can be effective as long as it's done properly. You'll rely on your body weight for this one and have the foam roller on the ground. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Place the foam roller under your neck so it's in a comfortable position right at the base of your skull. Making small movements, slowly nod your head up and down, then slowly rock it from the left to the right side.

Sternocleidomastoid Stretch

The big muscles on the side of your neck are your sternocleidomastoid muscles, and they help flex and extend your head. If these muscles are tight, they can cause pain, spasms, or dizziness.

A foam roller can help loosen these muscles and help reduce neck tension. Lie on your side with your neck relaxed comfortably on the foam roller. Your jaw should be in line with the top of the roller so you can move freely. Making small movements, roll your head about 45 degrees to the ceiling and back again. You can also stay on your side and slowly make small nods up and down.

Chest Stretch

Believe it or not, a tight chest can cause neck pain since tight  chest muscles can cause your shoulders to slouch forward.

To stretch your chest, lay the foam roller vertically on the ground. Lie back so it's in between your shoulder blades, your knees are bent, feet are planted, and your arms are stretched out to your sides. Relax your body and open up your chest, letting your arms hang down on the ground.

Traps Stretch

Foam Roller Traps

A common cause for neck tension is tightness in the trapezius muscles.

The traps are among the bigger muscle groups that get tight easily and can cause headaches and shoulder pain as well.

To foam roll the upper traps, lie on the roller with your shoulders and upper back on it. Your feet should be planted, but your legs and torso should be off the ground. Roll your shoulders and mid-back on the roller, moving back and forth, supporting your head with your hands if needed.

Lats Stretch

The latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle in your  back, and when it is tight, it can cause several problems for your upper and lower body, specifically your hamstrings. Tight lats and hamstrings can affect posture, which can cause neck pain.

Lie on your side with the foam roller just underneath your armpit. The arm that is on the ground should extend above your head to allow you to roll back and forth. Roll your body up to your shoulder blade and down to your ribcage.

Levator Scapulae Stretch

On the back of the neck connecting to the shoulder blade, is the levator scapulae muscle. It is responsible for lifting the scapula and turning the head side-to-side. Sitting with slouched shoulders can cause pain and tightness in this muscle.

For this stretch, you'll put the foam roller on the wall and stand with your back to it. Place the foam roller right to the side of your neck on your upper back. Press the roller into the wall as you roll it up and down along your shoulder blade.

Deltoids Stretch

Since your neck is connected to your  shoulders, it may come as no surprise that tight shoulders can cause tension in your neck, among other issues like mobility and injury risks. The deltoids are responsible for arm rotation, flexion, and extension.

Foam rolling the shoulders can be done on the floor or against a wall. Keep your arms at your sides and place your shoulder against the roller. Roll your body up and down against the deltoid.

Let's Roll

The foam roller is popular amongst competitive athletes and your average gym-goer due to its similarities to professional deep tissue massages and its convenience. You can find them anywhere for relatively cheap at your local sporting goods store or amazon.

It's important to note that chronic pain should be treated by a doctor or physical therapist, but your standard neck stiffness and tension can benefit from a foam roller. Exercising is important, but taking care of your body afterward is just as essential to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. So next time you wake up with that stubborn tension, don't just ignore it. Try rolling it out.