Header image

Neck pain and exercise

Neck pain and exercise
It’s literally a pain in the neck when you have issues with your neck. In this neck pain and exercise post, I’ll be talking about the causes of neck pain, the symptoms, treatment, including self help and what exercises you can do to help cope with some of those issues and strengthen your neck muscles.

What are the common causes of neck pain?

Your neck needs to be strong enough to support the heavy weight of your head, keeping it in an upright position, yet still allow for movement and enough flexibility for a wide range of motion. Our modern lifestyle causes many problems for our necks and it is a common issue for many people. There are a large number of nerve pathways traveling through the neck that can also affect your traps, upper back, shoulders, arms and hands, plus pain radiating down the spine can also cause pain in your legs.

Many neck issues are created by:

  • Diseases, viruses, infections
  • Degenerative disorders, such as arthritis
  • General wear and tear
  • Bad posture
  • Awkward sleeping positions
  • Looking down on your phone/book for long periods of time
  • A pinched nerve
  • A fracture
  • Muscle strains/sprains from activities/exercise, including incorrect exercise form
  • Whiplash
  • Impact from sports
  • Carrying heavy bags, including carrying bags over one shoulder
  • Over stretching your neck muscles

What are the symptoms of neck pain?

Most issues associated with neck pain are usually temporary and will go away within a few days or a week or two. Rarely is there a major issue with our necks, but if you have severe pain, numbness, tingling, loss of strength in your shoulders and/or arms or the pain goes on for more than 4-6 weeks you should seek medical advice.

The majority of problems are caused by a muscle or soft tissue strain/pull and usually affects one specific area and generally created by muscle fibres or a tendon suffering a tear or being over stretched or from a sprain to a ligament within the neck. Some injuries can have a delay to any symptoms occurring, such as whiplash. So if you suspect any neck injury it may be prudent to take an easy until you are sure about its severity. Other more severe or decease or degenerative issues can also have gradual symptoms and get worse over time.

Some symptoms of minor neck pain/issues include:

  • Cracking, clicking or grinding noises
  • A stiff neck – decrease in mobility / range of motion
  • Sharp pain, usually not a major problem despite the pain they cause, unless you have been in an accident (however I would still seek medical advice to be sure)
  • A dull ache
  • Light tenderness
  • Mild radiating pain, that can spread to shoulders, back and arms

Some symptoms of a more severe injury or issue with your neck include:

  • Pain continues or gets worse over time or for more than 4-6 weeks
  • Numbness, tingling (pins and needles)
  • Sudden trauma
  • Loss of co-ordination
  • Radiating pain – can spread to shoulders, back and arms
  • Muscle weakness (including down your back, shoulders, arms and legs)
  • Neck pain with high fever
  • Headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting
  • Neck pain with weight loss
  • Very painful to touch

Getting treatment

If any of the symptoms in the severe list occur, seek medical advice. Even for mild issues you can still go and see a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath to help speed up the recovery process.

Neck pain self help

If you believe your symptoms are caused by a minor issue, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself recover from it.

For general mild issues:

  • Rest – initially for a short period, a few days at most, but getting active slowly as soon as possible to avoid getting too stiff
  • Use ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Muscle rub (for pain relief)
  • Massage
  • Get a firm pillow that allows you to have a straight neutral head in bed, lay on your side or on your back, not front
  • Watch your posture (see posture here)
  • Take regular breaks and move around
  • Stop looking down for long periods of time at your phone/book
  • Use heat to increase blood flow to any problem areas. If inflamed use ice packs. Use heat before any activity and ice after
  • Do your exercises using the correct form and technique and use appropriate equipment
  • Do the exercises as described below

Exercises to help manage neck pain

Neck Stretches

Do these stretches to help with tight neck muscles only. Avoid holding a stretch for longer than stated, stop stretching if it make it worse and don’t try to work through pain. Over stretching your neck muscle can actually make it worse. Gentle stretching will relieve stiffness, but don’t forget about adding strength exercises to help condition and improve your neck muscles once recovered. Also breath normally throughout all these stretches, don’t hold your breath.

Neck side tilt
Seated or standing, looking straight ahead, move your right ear down to your right shoulder, keep looking ahead and don’t twist your head. Feel a slight stretch and don’t push or force it. Hold for 3-5 seconds then do the left side. Repeat 5 times for each side.

Neck turn
Seated or standing, looking straight ahead and keeping your head in a neutral straight up position (not leaning back), look to your right feeling a very slight stretch. Hold for 3-5 seconds and release and slowly return to the centre, then repeat for the left side. Repeat 5 times for each side.

Chin tucks  
Seated or standing, looking straight ahead, then look down and rest chin on your chest or as far as comfortable, but again don’t push it, feel a gentle stretch hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat 5 times.

Do all these stretching exercise every other day or when you feel you have a tight neck. If you can’t feel any stretching going on when using a reasonable amount of range of motion, then you don’t need to stretch the neck muscle in that position anymore. Don’t over stretching for the sake of it.

Neck, traps, rear shoulder and upper back strengthening exercises

Do these exercise to help condition and strengthen your neck, traps and upper back muscles. These are gentle exercises, do not be tempted to strain against any of them. Like the stretching exercises above, breath normally throughout all these exercises and don’t hold your breath.

Shoulder blade squeeze
Seated or standing, with your shoulder back and down and arms hanging by your side, bring your shoulders back and gently squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 5-10 seconds, relax for 10-20 seconds and repeat 5 times.

Static rear head holds
Seated or standing, place a hand behind your head and push against your head with moderate strength applied, do not allow your head to move, keep it straight in a neutral position, this is a static exercise.  Hold for 5-10 seconds, relax for 10-20 seconds and repeat 5 times.

Side (lateral) holds
Seated or standing, place a hand (use your palm) at the side of your head and push against your head with moderate strength applied, do not allow your head to move, keep it straight in a neutral position, this is a static exercise.  Hold for 5-10 seconds, relax for 10-20 seconds and repeat 5 times.

Shoulder circles
Seated or standing with arms hanging by your sides, pull your shoulders up, keeping your arms straight or near straight, body upright, then move them back and down, then forward in one circular motion. Continue for 10-20 circles.

You can do these static exercises 2-3 times a week and the shoulder circles every day , especially if you work at a desk.

Exercises to avoid:

These are some exercises that although can be beneficial for some types of workouts for specific goals, can also create a neck issue or make an existing neck issue worse. These include:

  • Neck rotations (circles). These can compress the nerves in the neck and cause possible spinal disc damage
  • Ab exercises that have you hold your hand behind your head puts strain on your neck and joints due to the jerking and forcing motion they can create on the neck
  • Overhead lifts if you are having constant issues
  • Any pull down or pull up exercise to the back of your head
  • Neck bridges – great strength exercise, but can be a problem for those with neck issues
  • Heavy lifting off the ground, such as dead-lifts and shrugs, as these can potentially place a lot of stress on your traps and neck


Whatever you do, make sure you warm-up before your workouts and cool down after. Neck problems can easily be avoided and managed. Don’t be afraid to do your regular exercises when you have recovered, but do ensure you take the right steps to safeguard any further issues.

Never work through pain if you have an issue and seek medical advice if your symptoms are severe or prolonged.