Neck exercises are a common part of almost any treatment plan for neck pain. A typical neck exercise program will consist of a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises.
Benefits of Neck Exercises
When neck, chest, and upper back muscles become weakened, tightened, and/or elongated, the shoulders can become rounded and the head sags forward. This poor posture in turn puts more stress on the neck spine’s facet joints and intervertebral discs, as well as the muscles and ligaments.
1. Neck stretches
Flexibility and stretching exercises can expand or preserve the range of motion and elasticity in affected neck spine joints, and thus relieve the stiffness that accompanies pain. As a general rule, neck stretching is best done every day, and some stretches can be done several times a day.
A. Neck Extension (Backward Bending)
Gently extend the neck by looking upward and bringing the head backward while keeping the shoulders and back stationary. Once the head has gone back as far as it can go without increasing pain, try to hold the stretch for 5 seconds before returning the head to the neutral (starting) position.
During a neck extension exercise, the stretch is felt along the front of the neck through the throat. The muscles working at the back of the neck may also be felt, from the base of the skull all the way down to the upper back.
B. Neck Flexion (Forward Bending)
Gradually lower the chin toward the chest and look downward while only moving the head. Once the head has been flexed forward as far as it can comfortably go, hold the stretch for 5 seconds before returning to neutral position.
The neck flexion stretch is felt throughout the back of the neck.
C. Lateral Neck Flexion (Bending Side to Side)
Slowly bend the head to one side, such as by bringing the left ear toward the left shoulder. During this stretch, the shoulders and back remain still while the neck flexes laterally to the side. Once the head has flexed as far as it can comfortably go to the side, try to hold the stretch for 5 seconds before returning the head to the neutral position. This stretch is then repeated in the opposite direction.
When the lateral neck flexion is performed with the head bending toward the left shoulder, the stretch is felt along the right side of the neck.
D. Neck Rotation (Turning Side to Side)
While keeping the back straight and shoulders still, gradually turn the head to the left as far as it can naturally go without increasing pain. Once the head has reached its rotation limit, hold the stretch for 5 seconds before bringing it back to neutral position. This same stretch is then repeated to the right.
Of all these stretches noted for a stiff neck, rotation is often the most challenging, especially on one side or the other. It is recommended to only rotate the neck partway if that is all that can be done without increasing pain.
2. Neck Strengthening
Specific strengthening exercises can help maintain improved posture, which in turn can 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.
Neck Flexion: Bend your neck slightly forward and put your hand on your forehead. Try to bend your head forward while pushing back with your hand.
Neck Extension: Keep your neck straight and place your hands at the back of your head. Try to push your head backwards while pushing forward with your hands.
Neck Side Bending: Keep your head straight and your chin level. Put your right hand on the right side of your head. Try to bring your head down to your right shoulder while pushing up with your right hand. REPEAT the Side Bending, but to the left side with your left hand.
Neck Rotation: Put your left hand at chin level and turn your head slightly to the right. Put your right hand on the right side of your face. Turn your head to the right while pushing it back with your right hand. REPEAT the Rotation Exercise, but on the left side of your face and with left hand.
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