Stretches to Relieve a Stiff Neck

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By Dr. Sender Deutsch
Published on January 31, 2014

What is Stiff Neck?

A stiff neck is a condition that often feels debilitating, as the majority of our activities require us to move our head in many different directions. Since the vestibular and ocular systems are connected to our neck, which are responsible for helping us maintain balance and stability, we can use these systems to help us stretch and reduce neck stiffness.

Treating a Stiff Neck

There are three stretches that I often recommend to my patients who present with a stiff and tight neck which I will explain below. Prior to stretching, it is always best to heat the tissues first, as they become more pliable, so you can have a better release of the muscles and achieve the best results. If you are at home, you can take a hot shower, bath or use a heating pad to allow for relaxation of the tissues. As well, you could also do a light exercise like walking, cycling, or elliptical for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the tissues to heat up. If you are at work, you can heat the area by using an ObusForme heating bag and placing it in the microwave. Heat the neck area for approximately 10-20 minutes prior to stretching. If you do not have a heating device or pad, simply wear a scarf or get up and walk briskly for 5 minutes to get the blood flowing before you start the stretches.

Stiff Neck Stretches

The first two stretches can be done at your desk. If it hurts to turn your head and neck to the side of the injury, than simply just stretch the injured side in the opposite direction. Always let pain be your guide. Stretching a stiff neck should feel slightly uncomfortable however, if there is any severe discomfort or referral of pain into your arm(s), please refer to your doctor or therapist immediately to be assessed further.

The first stretch is designed to target the trapezius muscle, which is the most superficial neck muscle that commonly contributes to neck pain and stiffness. Many people get tightness in this area from poor postural positions when sitting at their desk which forces their spine to be rounded and their shoulders to be lifted upwards. Therefore, we need to begin this stretch by sitting up nice and tall, pretending that there is a string attached to the top of your head. This will help force the shoulders downwards lengthening the neck. Next, grab the edge of your chair with the hand of the side you want to stretch. Take the opposite hand, and lightly assist yourself to pull your head and ear to the opposite shoulder.  For a deeper stretch, you can also turn the head slightly, pointing your chin downwards to the floor in the same direction (away from the hand holding the chair). Hold for 30 seconds to one minute and repeat two to three times on each side. Watch our demonstration video here.

The second stretch is a traction maneuver that helps release the sub-occipital muscles, which often become tight with neck pain and could cause headaches. This stretch should also be started by making sure your posture is correct and you are sitting nice and tall. You should start by retracting your chin (making a double chin) which helps elongate the neck. Then, take your thumbs and slide them up the back of your neck until they hit the occiput (which is the hard part) on the back of your head. Span out your other fingers along the back of your head and start to pull upwards, using your finger tips and thumbs to traction the area. Hold the traction position for as long as you can while you feel the muscles relax and reset.

The final stretch is done standing, and is another self- traction maneuver. Here we are stretching the levator scapulae muscles. These are powerful muscles that help turn our head and assist in elevation of the scapula. Therefore they tend to get very tight/ stiff if you are seated for a long period of time or stressed and find your shoulders are constantly being raised. For this stretch you want to place the arm of the side of your neck you want to stretch behind your back. Take the other hand and place it on the top of your head. Turn your head away from the arm behind your back, point your chin downwards and use the hand on top of the head to traction your neck downwards. As a guide and for a deeper stretch, you should look down to the floor, and focus on the opposite foot to the hand behind your back. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute.  You can also let the head hang forwards to feel a stretch on the side and back of the neck.