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5 Stretches to Soothe Your Stiff Neck

Published April 15, 2017    

What's the first thing you do when you wake up? What's the last thing you do before you go to bed? If your answer is to check your smart device, BackerNation would agree. Our phones and computers are how we stay connected. They are how we engage with friends from far away (even nearby), how we receive our news and even how we are able to wake up. So it's no surprise that with our heads in our phones so much, that our necks would somehow be affected. Hence the title — do you have a stiff neck?

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (DCD) reported that nearly 20 percent of us have experienced neck pain within the past three months.

“A stiff neck typically is the result of muscles weakening over time from poor posture or misuse,” explained chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC, of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine.

Poor posture could mean not sitting at your desk correctly, not sitting properly when watching television or extended periods of time glancing down at your smart devices. If this is you (maybe you don't realize it yet), it can add up and can displace your neck joints.

“When your neck muscles become weak and you try to turn your head, the joint no longer moves smoothly because it’s now out of place,” Dr. Bang reported. “Often the joint catches on something, either pulling a muscle or hitting the nerve irregularly, or maybe both. Then you’ll have instant pain and your body has a protective spasm. Your body doesn’t want you to get hurt more, so it will clench, causing you to feel like you can’t even move — and leaving you wondering what you did to injure yourself.”

Stretch it Out — Part I

Bang suggests putting your monitor at eye level, sitting up straight and avoiding tilting and twisting your head down or to the side while you’re on the computer as a way to help you avoid neck pain. When you’re driving or looking at your smartphone, “be sure to take frequent breaks and avoid having your neck bent forward for long periods of time,” Dr. Bang said. “The key to relief for a stiff neck is proper stretching and manipulation.”

Do you take a five-minute break at any point during your day? Adding a five-minute stretching routine can save your neck!

Here are some stretches you can try at your desk, or in the car, that may help you to avoid a stiff neck:

  • Roll your shoulders backwards and down 10 times
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together 10 times
  • Push your head backwards into your car head rest or hands and hold for 30 seconds
  • Bring your ear to your shoulder 10 times on each side
  • Take care when you sleep

Stretch it Out — Part II

Calling all overachievers! If five minutes sounds too easy or you are looking for something else to try, Allyn Kakuk, DPT, a wellness physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic offers four simple steps to help a stiff neck.

  • Step 1: Find the sore spot. If it's on the right side of your neck or upper back, place your right hand on the area. If it's on the left side, use your left hand.
  • Step 2: Push into the knot with your fingers, using firm pressure. Beware: This may smart. "But it should be a good hurt that you can tolerate, not a sharp pain," says Kakuk. If you can’t quite reach it, a tennis ball or other prop can do the work for you—just lean against a wall for leverage.
  • Step 3: Turn your head slightly in the direction opposite the cramp, and bend it diagonally, as if you were trying to touch your armpit with your chin. Activating the cramped muscle, when partnered with pressure, can help relax the kink.
  • Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3 about 20 times in a row. Afterward, give your neck and upper back a nice, long, just-got-out-of-bed style stretch. Complete the series throughout the day to keep your muscle relaxed.

Sleep it Out

Dr. Bang advised, “If your neck is bothering you, you also should pay attention to your sleep positions.  Sleep only on your side or on your back — never on your stomach.

“When you sleep on your stomach, often you will end up twisting your head one way or the other for hours at a time. Sleeping on your stomach also can affect your low back because your belly sinks into the bed if you don’t have enough support.” 

For minor, common causes of neck pain, try these simple remedies:

  • Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then use heat after that. Heat may be applied with warm showers, hot compresses or a heating pad. Be sure not to fall asleep with a heating pad or ice bag in place to avoid skin injuries.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Keep moving, but avoid jerking or painful activities. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
  • Do slow range-of-motion exercises, up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear. This helps to gently stretch the neck muscles.
  • Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
  • Try sleeping on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow.
  • Ask your health care provider about using a soft neck collar to relieve discomfort. Do not use the collar for a long time. Doing so can make your neck muscles weaker.

Continue to keep in touch with friends from away. Continue to get your news online. Continue to wake up from your phone's alarm clock (the louder the better). What we ask that you don't continue doing is not stretching it out — a few minutes each day can really go a long way. Your neck will thank you — trust us.

Last change: January 28, 2019