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.
What Causes Neck Pain?
- Nonspecific neck pain: This is the most common type. This is sometimes called ‘simple’ or ‘mechanical’ neck pain. Often the exact cause or origin of the pain is not known. It may include minor strains and sprains to muscles or ligaments in the neck. Bad posture may also be a contributing factor in some cases. For example, neck pain is more common in people who spend much of their working day at a desk, with a ‘bent-forward’ posture.
- A ‘whiplash’ jolt to the neck: This is most commonly due to an accident involving a vehicle, such as a car crash. It can cause neck pain. See separate leaflet called Whiplash Neck Sprain for details.
- Sudden-onset (acute) torticollis: This is sometimes called ‘wry neck’. A torticollis is when the head becomes twisted to one side and it is very painful to move the head back straight. The cause of acute primary torticollis is often not known. However, it may be due to a minor strain or sprain to a muscle or ligament in the neck. Some cases may be due to certain muscles of the neck being exposed to cold (‘sleeping in a draught’). It is common for people to go to bed feeling fine and to wake up the next morning with an acute torticollis. The pain usually eases and clears away over a few days without any treatment. Occasionally, torticollis is due to more serious causes. See separate leaflet called Torticollis for details.
- Wear and tear (degeneration): Wear and tear of the spinal bones (vertebrae) and the discs between the vertebrae is a common cause or recurring or persistent neck pain in older people. This is sometimes called cervical spondylosis. However, most people over the age of 50 have some degree of degeneration (spondylosis) without getting neck pain. See separate leaflet called Cervical Spondylosis for details.
When the root of a nerve is pressed on or damaged as it comes out from the spinal cord in the neck (cervical) region, the condition is known as cervical radiculopathy. As well as neck pain, there are symptoms such as loss of feeling (numbness), pins and needles, pain and weakness in parts of an arm supplied by the nerve. These other symptoms may actually be the main symptoms rather than neck pain.
The common causes of a radiculopathy are cervical spondylosis and a prolapsed disc. (A prolapsed disc is sometimes called a ‘slipped disc’, but the disc does not actually slip. What happens is that part of the inner softer area of the disc bulges out (prolapses) through the outer harder part of the disc, pressing on the nerve as it passes out of the vertebra.)
Various less common disorders can also cause cervical radiculopathy. This is discussed in more detail in the cervical spondylosis leaflet
Dangers of Drugs for Neck Pain Treatment
Millions of Australians depend on anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain, but the drugs are among the most dangerous on the market. Aside from significantly increasing your heart risks (such as a two to fourfold increase in the risk of heart attacks, stroke or cardiovascular death), NSAIDs are linked to serious gastrointestinal risks like bleeding of the digestive tract, increased blood pressure and kidney problems. Remember, this applies not only to prescription medications like Celebrex but also to over-the-counter drugs like aspirin, Advil and Motrin.
It’s very difficult to find a drug-based method of pain relief that is not saddled with severe side effects. The FDA has even recently limited the amount of acetaminophen allowed in prescription products and added a boxed warning due to liver toxicity concerns. Acetaminophen is actually the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States.
As for the opioid painkillers like OxyContin, they are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs and are a leading contributor to the rising rates of fatal prescription drug overdoses. Many become addicted after using them to treat conditions like back or neck pain.
But no matter what type of painkiller you choose, the bottom line to remember is that they do not come without risks! Unfortunately, if you visit your conventional doctor with severe neck pain, a long-term treatment plan will typically include a drug-combination approach, using anti-inflammatory drugs, anti-seizure medications, muscle relaxants and possibly other types of pain medication as well. In other words, the answer for pain relief is drugs, drugs and more drugs — each one raising your risk of suffering potentially lethal side effects.
Powerful drugs can numb your nervous system so the pain doesn’t register. While these approaches may be convenient, they can cause adverse effects and kidney or liver damage. Worse, they don’t correct the underlying cause of the headache.
Exercises to Relieve Neck Pain Naturally
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.
- Stand along side a wall and place your right hand up on the wall to 12 o’clock. Slowly move your hand from 12 to 1, 2 and finally to the position at 3 o’clock. Take your left hand and place it on the right rib cage. Take a deep inhalation and as you exhale, pull the rib cage forward without moving the right arm. You should feel a stretch in front of the right shoulder or down the right arm. Hold for six deep breaths. To intensify the stretch, move closer to the wall. Repeat on the other side. If there is any tingling in the arm, move away from the wall until it resolves or discontinue the exercise.
- Postural Awareness and Breathing
- Deep breathing is the first step to relieving neck tension. When we breathe in a shallow manner, the muscles of the neck (instead of the diaphragm) contract. To begin to breathe deeply using the diaphragm, sit upright at the edge of a chair with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Make sure the knees are lower than your hips. Place your hands on your belly and close your eyes. As you inhale, feel your belly rise into your hands and as you exhale, feel it fall. Notice any tension in the neck and relax your neck muscles as you direct the breath into the belly.As you breathe, bring your awareness into the front of the chest and the collar bones. Broaden your collar bones so the front of the chest lifts up. Drop your shoulder blades away from the ears and lift the crown of the head towards the sky.
- Continue to breathe this way for 10 deep breaths. Try to do this every hour by setting an alarm as a reminder to stop, breathe and notice your posture
- ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Chiropractic Care: Chiropractic works by opening stuck joints, returning movement to the spine, and removing any nerve impingement that might be happening. If a disc herniation is involved, chiropractic is a natural way to provide a long-term solution. Chiropractic gets to the source of the problem, not just addressing the symptoms but finding the area of dysfunction and returning it normal physiology—in other words, making the area work the way it’s supposed to. When function returns, pain goes away. But mind you, getting rid of pain is not the only name of the game as far as chiropractic is concerned; return to function is the real goal, because when function returns, pain goes away on its own. Pain is nothing more than a warning signal telling you when something is wrong. Shutting off the alarm instead of investigating what is causing the alarm to go off only sets you up for a recurring problem. Once found, the solution can then be applied.
Chiropractic care is a non-surgical treatment option that can help reduce your neck pain symptoms.
Some neck conditions that can improve with chiropractic care are:
- Cervical intervertebral disc injuries that don’t require surgery
- Cervical sprain injuries
- Degenerative joint syndrome of the neck
- Facet joint sprain
Your chiropractor will evaluate your spine as a whole because other regions of the spine may be affected as well—not just your neck. Along with treating the spine as a whole, chiropractors treat the “whole person,” not just your specific symptoms. He or she may educate you on nutrition, stress management, and lifestyle goals in addition to treating your neck pain.
Before deciding which approach to try for your pain, the chiropractor will do a thorough examination to diagnose the specific cause of your neck pain.
He or she will determine any areas of restricted movement and will look at how you walk as well as your overall posture and spinal alignment. Doing these things can help your chiropractor understand your body mechanics.
In addition to the physical exam, you’ll also go through your past medical history with the chiropractor, and he or she may order imaging tests (eg, an x-ray or MRI) to help him or her diagnose the exact cause of your neck pain.
All these steps in the diagnostic process will give your chiropractor more information about your neck pain, which will help your chiropractor create a treatment plan customized for you.
Your chiropractor will also rule out a neck pain condition that will require surgery—if he or she believes your neck pain would be better treated by surgery, then you’ll be referred to a spine surgeon.
Your chiropractor may use a combination of spinal manipulation, manual therapy, and other techniques as part of your treatment plan for neck pain.
Below are some spinal manipulation techniques your chiropractor may use.
- Flexion-distraction technique is a gentle, hands-on spinal manipulation that involves a pumping action on the intervertebral disc instead of direct force.
- Instrument-assisted manipulation uses a hand-held instrument to allow your chiropractor to apply force without thrusting into the spine.
- Specific spinal manipulation helps restore joint movement using a gentle thrusting technique.
- Therapeutic exercises may also be recommended—these can help improve overall range of motion in your neck and prevent neck pain from progressing.