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July 19, 2021 9 min read

Are you currently experiencing neck pain? If so, you're not alone. Every year, about 1 in 3 people experience neck pain.

Neck pain is particularly frustrating for everyday gym-goers like you because it can keep you out of the gym for days on end.

However, neck pain is usually a simple fix with specific stretches and exercises. If you're ready to solve your neck pain once and for all, here's exactly how to do it!

Muscular man suffering from neck injury while exercising at gym

What Causes Neck Pain?

Unfortunately, neck pain has become an all too common health issue in today's world. Thankfully, you can resolve most neck pain with simple exercises, stretches, and lifestyle changes. And, it's unlikely that it is the result of a more serious medical condition.

The most common causes of neck pain include:

  1. Muscle strains: Strains are the most likely cause of pain in the neck. There are several common strain causes, including poor posture of the neck and head, overuse of neck muscles, and lack of neck flexibility.
  1. Weak or worn joints: Poor joint health is commonly associated with aging. The older you get, the more your joints wear down, including those in the neck. In addition to aging, a lack of neck flexibility causes weak and worn joints.
  1. Nerve compression: Your neck is at the very top of your spinal cord. Tiny nerves fill the entire length of your spinal cord. Sometimes in poor conditions, the nerves have excess pressure on top of them. That pressure is usually the result of not moving your neck around enough or a more serious medical condition such as herniated disks or bone spurs.
  1. Neck injuries: Lastly, car crashes, sports-related injuries, and falls are common causes of neck injuries. Neck injuries include whiplash, broken necks, neck sprains, and spinal fractures.

The Root Cause of Most Neck Pain

As we mentioned above, the most likely cause of neck pain is neck muscle strains. And, of the causes of neck strain, the most likely one is poor posture, particularly poor forward head posture.

Forward head posture (FHP) refers to hyperextension of the neck. Hyperextension is a type of neck misalignment when your head presses and leans forward. With proper posture, the head and neck stack right on top of the shoulders.

With FHP, the head and neck are in front of the shoulders and point downwards. When you have FHP, it causes a cascade of side effects, including:

  • Elongated and weakened cervical flexors, erector spinae, and shoulder blade retractors
  • Short and tightened chest muscles, levator scapulae muscles, and suboccipital muscles

Moreover, poor neck and head posture is the root cause of most neck pain today. And when you have poor neck posture, it causes an entire cascade of additional problems. However, why is poor posture so common these days?

The High Cost of Today's Ultra-Sedentary Society

It's no secret that much of the world spends the majority of its time sitting down. In fact, the average American spends more than 4 hours per day just watching TV. Added to the many hours spent sitting behind a desk, scrolling through social media, and sitting down to eat, that's a lot of time spent being sedentary.

Not only does this ultra-sedentary lifestyle make us overweight and unhealthy, but it's also the cause of most of our postural issues. Every time you sit down at your computer, scroll through your phone, or look down at your food, your posture is probably suffering.  Unless you are hyper-aware of your posture, you more likely than not:

  • Tip your head down
  • Press your neck forward
  • Hunch your shoulders and upper back 

Doctors have even coined a term for this poor posture, calling it texting posture. Moreover, our sedentary ways of life are causing our posture to suffer.  As a result, we are experiencing more neck pain than ever. If you work a desk job or need to spend a large portion of your day sitting, you must become hyper-aware of your posture. 

If you don't, your risk of developing debilitating neck pain will go up exponentially.  On top of that, you need to do our stretches and exercises to solve your existing neck pain.  Not only will they help solve your current symptoms, but they'll also prevent future flare-ups.

Neck Anatomy

Your neck is your upper spine. The upper spine is called the cervical spine and is composed of seven vertebrae. The primary function of the seven cervical vertebrae is to initiate neck rotation and movement. It does that with the help of several anatomical features, including:

  • Intervertebral disks 
  • Disk and facet joints
  • Uncovertebral, atlanto-axial, and atlanto-occipital joints
  • Six major ligaments
  • Several muscles

While the neck makes up a small portion of your body, it is very intricate. The fact that it is so intricate makes it even more important to keep healthy. Issues with any one of these anatomical features can lead to neck pain.

Thankfully though, regardless of what part of your neck is causing the pain, you can most likely fix the problem with stretching and strengthening exercises.

Signs of Neck Problems (Other Than Neck Pain)

Of course, the most common sign of neck problems is neck pain. However, there are other signs and symptoms outside of neck pain that stems back to neck problems. Some of these signs include:

  • Upper back pain 
  • Shoulder pain 
  • Pain in the back of your head 
  • Arm pain 
  • Numbness in the arms and hands
  • Stiff neck

Because the cervical spine is so intricate and interconnected with the rest of the body, it can cause pain to radiate throughout the entire upper body and even the lower body. Therefore, if you are experiencing unusual body aches, pains, or numbness, it could be caused by neck problems.

Even if your neck doesn't hurt, you could be dealing with a neck issue. If you are experiencing debilitating neck pain or one of these other symptoms, we suggest seeing a physical therapist for a formal diagnosis.

Best Neck Exercises for Pain Relief

Now, without further adieu, here are the best exercises for neck pain relief. These particular exercises are neck strengthening exercises. A stronger neck will help improve your posture.  Better posture will relieve your pain.

1. Chin Tucks

Chin tucks help realign your head and neck over your shoulders. Therefore, they are a perfect exercise if you suffer from FHP. Stand up straight with your cervical spine in a neutral position over your shoulders and look straight ahead. Act as if there is a string attached to your head that is pulling you up tall.

Then, softly press two of your fingers on your chin as if you are trying to give yourself a double chin. Pressing your fingers on your chin will prevent your head from tipping forward during the exercise.

When you are ready, pull your head backward for 3 seconds, then release it back to the starting position. Pull it back to feel a stretch through the length of your neck.

The idea is to have your head move slightly behind your shoulders. Because it is such a simple exercise, it's a great one to do while sitting on the couch or at your desk.

2. Scapular Shoulder Squeeze

The scapular shoulder squeeze is a great way to strengthen your lower neck and upper back. Stand or sit up straight with a neutral spine. Align your head over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hips. Remove tension in your shoulders by rolling out your shoulders.

Raise your arms to shoulder height and in line with your back. Then, bend your elbows and face your palms forward to create a U-shape with each arm. When you're ready, slowly press your arms backward by squeezing your shoulder blades together.

Hold the squeeze for 5 to 10 seconds, then return your arms to starting position.  Repeat a few more times.

3. Cervical Spine Bending

Also known as neck flexion, cervical spine bending is great for strengthening and stretching your posterior neck muscles. Therefore, if you have a neck muscle strain, this exercise is perfect for you.

Lay flat on your back with your arms by your sides and legs straight. There should be a natural curve in your neck when you lay flat, such that your neck does not touch the ground as you lay down.

When you are ready, slowly press your shoulder blades back to draw your chin towards your chest.

This should stretch and strengthen the muscles in the back of your neck. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then release your shoulder tension and your chin from your chest.

4. Wall Push-ups

The goal with wall push-ups is to strengthen the upper back muscles that support your neck.  They are lower impact than regular push-ups, so they are easier on your joints.

Stand up tall and face a wall. Hold your arms out straight at shoulder level and rest your palms flat on the wall. Then, bend your elbows so your chest gets closer to the wall to simulate a traditional push-up movement. Hold at the bottom of the push-up, then press back up to starting position.

5. Resistance Band Neck Extension

Sit up straight in a chair with a neutral spine.  Wrap a resistance band around the middle of your head and hold one end in each hand.  There should be light tension in the resistance band. When you're ready, extend your elbows so tension increases in the resistance band. 

As the tension increases, channel strength from your neck muscles to keep your head and neck neutral. Keep your elbows extended for ten seconds, then bend them to release the tension in the band and relax your neck.  Repeat a few more times. 

Athletic young man warm up by stretching neck before exercises

Best Neck Stretches for Pain Relief

Next, here are the best stretches for neck pain relief. In addition to a stronger neck, a more flexible neck will also help relieve pain. For each of these exercises, be sure to move slowly through them to prevent pulling a muscle or injuring yourself further.

1. Forward and Backward Tilt

Sit in a chair or stand up straight with a neutral spine.  Align your head right over your shoulders.Take a deep breath, then exhale and slowly tilt your head forward.  Your chin should approach your upper chest.  Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds and feel the stretch in your posterior neck.  Then, inhale and un-tilt your neck to bring your spine back to neutral.

Hold your head neutral, then exhale and slowly tilt your head backward.  The back of your head should come close to parallel with the floor.  Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds and feel the stretch in the front of your neck.  Then, inhale and un-tilt your neck to bring your spine back to neutral.

2. Side Tilts

Sit in a chair or stand up straight with a neutral spine.  Align your head right over your shoulders.Take a deep breath, then exhale and drop your right ear towards your right shoulder. Feel the stretch in the left side of the neck. Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds.  Then, inhale and realign your neck over the rest of your spine.

From neutral, exhale and tilt your head to the opposite side. Feel the stretch in the right side of the neck. Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds. Then, inhale and realign your neck over the rest of your spine.

3. Side Rotations

Next, increase rotational mobility in your spine with side rotations. Sit in a chair or stand up straight with a neutral spine. Align your head right over your shoulders.

Take a deep breath, then exhale and rotate your head to the right. To get the full range of motion, try to get your chin to your right shoulder. Hold the twist for fifteen to thirty seconds, then inhale and untwist your neck.

With your neck back in neutral, slowly rotate your head to the left side. Try to get your chin to touch your left shoulder. Hold the twist for fifteen to thirty seconds, then inhale and untwist your neck.

During this exercise, be sure to keep your shoulders facing forward. Everything below the neck should remain still.

4. Upper Trapezius Stretch

The trapezius is one of the largest muscles in your back.  It extends from the mid back up the entire length of the neck. Stand up straight with a neutral spine and your head stacked over your shoulders.  Press your head an inch or two backward as if you were doing chin tucks.

Place your right arm behind your back and bend your elbow so your lower arm is parallel with the floor.  Then, take your left hand and hold the top of your head.

With your left hand, pull your head down towards your left shoulder.  Feel the stretch in the right side of your neck and right trapezius.  Then, release your head and right arm.  Repeat on the opposite side.

5. Thread the Needle

Last but not least, the thread the needle stretch is one of the best stretches for your entire spine.  The cervical spine, middle back spine, and lower back spine, all get a great stretch.

Get on your hands and knees on a soft, flat surface.  Your knees should be directly under your hips and your hands under your shoulders.

When you're ready, lift your right hand high into the air to open up the right side of your body.  Hold open for a few seconds, then drop your right shoulder to the floor and thread your arm underneath your chest. 

You should feel a deep stretch in your spine. Keep your arm threaded for fifteen to thirty seconds, then unthread your arm and return to all fours.  Repeat the stretch on the left side.

Final Thoughts

If you are one of the many people struggling with neck pain, don't let it go on for another day. Even if you don't have neck pain right now, we still suggest adding these stretches and exercises to your weekly routine to prevent pain in the future.

Start doing these stretches and exercises to relieve neck pain today!

Bonus tip: Your neck is intricately connected to your back. Give these top back stretches a try to help loosen up your back and lower neck!