Neck Exercises for Neck Pain

Neck exercises are a common part of almost any treatment program for neck pain. A typical neck exercise program will consist of a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises, aerobic conditioning, and possibly trigger point exercises.

This article focuses on neck exercise to relieve neck pain caused by posture problems, and includes instructions for specific neck stretches, neck strengthening exercises, aerobic exercise and trigger point exercises.

Benefits of Neck Exercises

Chronic or recurrent neck pain can be severely debilitating and can also be accompanied by upper back pain, shoulder blade pain, and headaches. These symptoms, along with tight neck muscles and stiff joints, can make even the simplest daily activities painful.

An appropriate neck exercise program can address most of these symptoms as follows:

    Neck Stretches
    Flexibility and stretching exercises can expand or preserve the range of motion and elasticity in affected cervical (neck) joints, and thus relieve the stiffness that leads to pain. As a general rule, neck stretching is best done everyday, and some stretches should be done several times a day.

    Neck Strengthening
    Specific strengthening exercises will help maintain improved posture, which in turn will lessen or eliminate recurrent flare-ups of pain. As a general rule, neck strengthening exercises should be done every other day to allow muscles time to repair themselves.

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    Aerobic Conditioning
    Aerobic exercises increase blood flow to the muscles and soft tissues of the neck and upper back, which can help loosen the muscles and increase range of motion. In addition, endorphins are also produced after about 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and they can help reduce neck pain.

    Aerobic conditioning can be done every day. Good options for aerobic conditioning include using a treadmill, stationary bike, or an elliptical machine, as well as an upper body ergometer or arm bike.

For many, before starting an exercise program it is necessary to first get the pain under control. Gradual joint motion and stretches to increase range of motion in the neck over time will reduce the pain of normal activity.

Neck Exercises for Pain Control

The variety of options available to manage neck pain is extensive, including:

  • Apply a heating pad prior to exercise to warm up stiff muscles and joints and make it easier to stretch.
  • After exercise, apply a cold pack (or frozen bag of peas wrapped in a towel) to reduce inflammation in the joints and muscles.
  • Use over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. ibuprofen), to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Use prescription anti-inflammatories and pain medications (corticosteroids, COX-2 inhibitors), as necessary, to manage severe pain.

Consult a Professional Before Starting Physical Therapy

Before beginning any neck stretching or exercise program, patients are advised to consult a health professional, such as an appropriately trained physical therapist, physiatrist or chiropractor. The goal of a health consultation is twofold:

  1. To get an accurate diagnosis for the cause of the neck pain or stiffness, as different clinical diagnoses will dictate different types of exercises.
  2. To learn the correct form when doing the exercises, as doing the right exercises but with the wrong form is a common mistake and can lead to either lack of improvement or even increased pain and symptoms.

Depending upon the specific diagnosis and the level of pain that the patient is in, different exercises may be recommended for neck pain. It is important for patients to seek a cervical spine specialist who is trained to evaluate neck pain and develop an individualized exercise program.

Because the vertebrae of the neck are influenced by so many different muscle groups (such as the back, shoulder, chest, and neck), it may also be necessary for patients to have a practitioner perform soft tissue work such as massage and manual stretching, in conjunction with neck exercises.

A practitioner or healthcare team trained in both soft tissue work and exercise prescription, can provide both rehabilitation and pain relief for neck problems and may include physical therapists, chiropractors and physiatrists among others.

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