The 9 Most Effective Exercises for Neck Pain Relief - GoodRx (2023)

Key takeaways:

  • Poor posture, injuries, or arthritis often cause neck pain and stiffness.

  • Neck stretches help increase mobility, correct muscle imbalances, and loosen tight muscles.

  • Strengthening exercises can support the neck and promote good posture.

The 9 Most Effective Exercises for Neck Pain Relief - GoodRx (1)

Neck pain is pretty common, whether you wake up with a stiff neck or have discomfort at the end of the day.

Fun fact: The average adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in an upright position. But when you look down at your phone, the load on your neck increases by up to 60 pounds. The strain is sometimes referred to as "text neck." So it's no wonder many people have neck pain and stiffness.

Luckily, stretching and strengthening exercises can help.

What causes neck pain?

First, let's look at the anatomy of the neck. Your neck or cervical spine contains seven bony vertebrae that make up the spinal column. Flexible cartilage discs between each vertebra act as shock absorbers. Your spinal cord, which sits inside the spinal column, has multiple nerves. And various muscles and ligaments support your head and neck.

Typically, neck pain results from injury to one or more of these structures. Acute neck pain is usually not serious and will go away in a couple of weeks. But some conditions can last longer if left untreated.

Common causes of neck pain include:

  • Muscle strain: Soft tissue injuries to the muscles or ligaments are among the most common causes of neck pain and stiffness. Awkward sleep positions and prolonged poor posture or other overuse injuries often cause muscle strain.

  • Injury: Injuries from car accidents, contact sports, or falls may cause neck pain. The damage can affect your soft tissues, resulting in injuries like whiplash. Or it can cause more serious fractures and dislocations.

  • Age-related wear and tear: As you age, normal wear and tear can lead to osteoarthritis, which may cause neck problems. For example, discs may wear down and lose flexibility (cervical disc degeneration). Or the space around the spinal column may start to narrow, causing spinal stenosis or a pinched nerve.

  • Herniated disc: A herniated disc occurs when your cervical discs protrude. This puts pressure on your nerves or spinal cord, resulting in pain, tingling, and weakness.

  • Osteoporosis: With osteoporosis, weak or brittle bones increase the risk of fractures. It can cause neck issues, including pinched nerves, pain, stiffness, and numbness.

You should see a healthcare provider if:

  • Your neck symptoms appear after a car accident or other injury

  • Your symptoms don’t improve within 1 to 2 weeks

  • You experience pain, tingling, or numbness in your arm

  • You notice a loss of coordination

  • You have a headache or fever

  • You have any vision changes or light hurts your eyes

  • You faint or lose consciousness

9 exercises to relieve neck pain

If you have neck pain, consult your healthcare provider before trying new exercises. Your provider can also help you understand which exercises are safe for you and which you should avoid.

And remember: Stretching and strengthening exercises to ease pain and stiffness may cause mild discomfort, but they shouldn’t cause pain. Stop if any activities make your symptoms worse.

Here are some exercises to discuss with your provider. Unless otherwise stated, you can begin each exercise in a seated or standing position. Maintain good posture with your shoulders back, your head in a neutral position, and your core engaged (to stabilize your spine).

1. Side-to-side bends (lateral neck flexion)

  1. Slowly bend your head to the right, bringing your ear toward your shoulder.

  2. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, feeling the stretch along the left side of your neck. Return to neutral.

  3. Repeat the stretch on your left side.

  4. Complete 2 to 4 reps.

2. Forward and backward bends (neck flexion and extension)

  1. Lower your chin toward your chest (flexion).

  2. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, feeling the stretch in the back of your neck. Return to neutral.

  3. Slowly bend your head backward, bringing your chin toward the ceiling (extension).

  4. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, feeling the stretch in the front of your neck. Return to neutral.

  5. Complete 2 to 4 reps.

3. Side-to-side turns (neck rotation)

  1. Turn your head to the right and look over your shoulder.

  2. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, feeling the stretch along the left side of your neck. Return to neutral.

  3. Repeat the turn on your left side.

  4. Complete 2 to 4 reps.

4. Chin tucks (neck retraction)

  1. Place a finger on your chin for guidance.

  2. Pull your chin and head back, not down.

  3. Hold for 5 seconds, feeling the stretch on the sides of your neck and the base of your skull.

  4. Repeat 10 times.

5. Shoulder rolls

  1. Shrug your shoulders up toward your ears.

  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull your shoulders back.

  3. Move your shoulders down as far as they can go.

  4. Shift your shoulders forward as you return to neutral, feeling your upper back round.

  5. Repeat this set 10 to 15 times, feeling the muscles in your neck and shoulders loosen up.

6. Levator scapulae stretch

  1. Place your right hand behind your head.

  2. Turn your head to the right at a 45-degree angle.

  3. Gently pull your head down toward your right armpit, feeling a stretch along the left side of your neck. You can use your hand to ease into a deeper stretch.

  4. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.

  5. Repeat on the opposite side.

  6. Complete 3 to 5 reps.

7. Neck isometrics

  1. Place your hand on your forehead. Push your head into your hand without letting your hand move. Hold for 5 seconds.

  2. Place your hand on the back of your head and push. Hold for 5 seconds.

  3. Place your hand on the right side of your head and push. Hold for 5 seconds.

  4. Place your hand on the left side of your head and push. Hold for 5 seconds.

  5. Repeat this gentle strengthening routine 3 to 5 times.

8. Head lifts

  1. Lie on the floor with your knees bent, your feet flat, and your arms at your sides.

  2. Engage your core to stabilize your spine.

  3. Lift your head off the floor, moving your chin toward your chest. Pause at the top before returning to the starting position.

  4. Keep your shoulders on the floor as you perform this neck-strengthening move.

  5. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

9. Wall angels

  1. Stand with your back against a wall.

  2. Step forward and bend your knees slightly, keeping your feet shoulder-width apart.

  3. Raise your arms out to your sides, making a "T" shape. The back of your forearms, elbows, and hands should be against the wall.

  4. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle, making the shape of a football goal post.

  5. Lift your arms over your head until the fingertips on your left and right hands touch. Keep your back and elbows against the wall at all times.

  6. Lower your arms back to the goal post position.

  7. Do 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps.

How do stretching and strengthening exercises help neck pain?

Your healthcare provider can determine the best form of treatment for neck pain. It will depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms. In many cases, conservative treatments, such as ice or heat therapy, are effective.

Exercise can also help you manage or prevent neck pain. Stretching and strengthening exercises –– especially those that work key postural muscles in your upper back and shoulders –– may:

The bottom line

There's a reason people say there's nothing worse than a pain in the neck. Although it’s usually not serious, neck pain and stiffness can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Muscle strain from poor posture or overuse, injuries, and age-related wear and tear are usually to blame.

Fortunately, conservative treatments, including stretching and strengthening exercises, can help. But check with your healthcare provider before trying new moves to ease your symptoms.

References

American Association of Neurological Surgeons. (n.d.). Cervical spine.

American Association of Neurological Surgeons. (n.d.). Neck pain – Causes, diagnosis and treatments.

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de Campos, T. F., et al. (2018). Exercise programs may be effective in preventing a new episode of neck pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Physiotherapy.

Gross, A. R., et al. (2009). Knowledge to action: A challenge for neck pain treatment. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.

Gross, A., et al. (2015). Exercises for mechanical neck disorders. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Health Direct. (2019). Neck pain.

Kim, J.-H.,et al. (2016). The effect of applying a head-weight device on cervical angle and pain of neck muscles. Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Science.

Lee, D. Y., et al. (2017). Changes in rounded shoulder posture and forward head posture according to exercise methods. Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2022). Cervical spinal stenosis.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Whiplash.

OrthoInfo. (2021). Neck pain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Sterling, M., et al. (2019). Best evidence rehabilitation for chronic pain part 4: Neck pain. Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Tunwattanapong, P., et al. (2016). The effectiveness of a neck and shoulder stretching exercise program among office workers with neck pain: A randomized controlled trial. Clinical Rehabilitation.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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