The necessity of neck stretches
If you’ve ever had a crick in your neck—you know, one of those sudden, stabbing, tingly pains that seemingly strikes without warning—you can imagine how much your life would be affected if you were faced with chronic neck pain or immobility.
It’s not for nothing that the phrase “pain in the neck” exists.
That’s why taking preventative measures to keep your neck and surrounding musculature mobile—like doing neck stretches—is so incredibly important.
Luckily, prevention goes a long way, and it’s not hard to incorporate neck stretches into your daily life.
The importance of maintaining neck flexibility
The stress of modern life doesn’t help curb the incidence of neck pain or back pain.
Think about it: when you’re sitting in a stressful meeting or driving through rush hour traffic, where do you tend to hold your tension? Most likely in your shoulders, upper back, and neck.
And throughout the day, whether you’re working at your desk, leaning forward to cook over the stove, or checking your text messages, your body is in a posture that includes rounded shoulders and a forward tilt to the neck.
Over time, these changes in posture can cause changes in muscle length and tension, which can contribute to neck pain or immobility.
“If you take the example of someone looking down at their phone throughout the day, the neck flexors at the front of the neck get tight and restrictive while the extensors at the back of the neck get over-lengthened and irritated,” says Ashley Hunt, a certified corrective and orthopedic exercise specialist and the cofounder of Panacea, an integrative health app for chronic pain.
“The best thing you can do throughout your day is work on proper alignment of the neck,” she says.
When to call a doctor
Of course, whenever talking about pain or inflexibility at the spine or neck, you want to make sure that self-treatment isn’t going to exacerbate a problem.
“If you’re experiencing sharp pain in any part of your body, and symptoms continue to increase, you should consult your doctor,” says Hunt.
This is particularly important if you’re experiencing loss of function, numbness, or tingling in your extremities, she says. Those symptoms could indicate a serious problem.
Start with resetting your posture
If you’re plagued with stress, constantly looking at your phone, and your neck always seems to feel tight and sore, your best bet is to start by checking your posture.
Set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour. Then check in with yourself. Are your shoulders rolled forward? Are they tense and creeping up toward your ears? Is your neck looking down?
While you’re at it, also think about your jaw: Is it clenched and tight?
Take a couple of seconds to shrug and release your shoulders, roll them back and forth, and yawn to release tension from your jaw.
Then check your posture. Engage your abs and draw your belly button back and up, as though trying to pull it toward your spine.
Sit or stand up straight, evenly distributing your weight between your legs.
Pull your shoulders back and check to see if your ears are “stacked” above your shoulders and hips (if sitting) as well as your knees and ankles (if standing).
Consciously checking and correcting your posture periodically throughout the day will help you prevent tension and muscle imbalances from becoming worse with time.
Neck stretches for better flexibility
In addition to resetting your posture, taking a few minutes to stretch your neck two or three times a day will help ensure you’re maintaining mobility and range of motion. And if you do have tension or imbalances that have affected your mobility, these stretches can help correct and alleviate the problem.
This simple stretch routine takes less than five minutes to complete and can be done pretty much anywhere.
If you’re having a hard time touching your chin to your chest, or if you feel tightness at the base of your skull, you may need to ease tension in your neck flexors. This stretch can help.
How to do it
Sit or stand tall with perfect posture and your core engaged.
Breathe in. As you exhale, try to bring your chin to your chest.
Stop if or when you feel a stretch at the base of your skull or, if you have a good range of motion, at the top of your shoulders.
Hold the position, breathing deeply, for 30 seconds. Release, then repeat.
If holding the stretch for a full 30 seconds is uncomfortable, complete three sets of 20-second stretches or four sets of 15-second stretches instead.
The goal is to hold the stretch for a total of 60 seconds, but you can achieve this with shorter stretches rather than longer, sustained stretches.
Neck extension is basically the opposite of flexion. This stretch also targets the deep muscles of your neck, into your shoulders and upper back.
How to do it
To perform the stretch, sit or stand tall with perfect posture. Engage your core.
Take a breath in. As you exhale, slowly start looking up and back, extending your neck as far as you can.
When you feel a stretch, stop and hold the position, breathing deeply, for 30 seconds. Release, then repeat.
If holding the stretch for a full 30 seconds is uncomfortable, you can complete three sets of 20-second stretches or four sets of 15-second stretches instead.
Neck lateral flexion
Neck lateral flexion helps ease tension and discomfort at the sides of your neck and into your shoulders.
If you have pain on one side of your neck or the other, you may discover that range of motion is limited on one side.
Respect your limits and only move as far as you feel a stretch. If you feel outright pain, stop the stretch.
How to do it
Sit or stand tall with perfect posture, keeping your core engaged. Relax your shoulders downward—your shoulders shouldn’t move during this stretch.
Lean your head as far as you can to the right, as though bringing your ear to your shoulder. Stop when you feel a stretch through the left side of your neck and into your left shoulder.
Breathe deeply. Place your right hand on top of your left ear, gently holding the stretch.
Maintain the position for 30 seconds. Release, then repeat on the opposite side.
Perform a total of two sets per side. Or, if a 30-second stretch is too hard to hold, perform more sets, broken up into shorter segments. Do a total of 60 seconds per side.
Rolling your neck through a circular motion is a great way to help ease the tension that develops through your neck and shoulders.
But because doing full neck rolls can place strain on your neck, particularly if you already have pain or imbalances, it’s important to only perform the half roll.
How to do it
Sit or stand tall with perfect posture. Look straight ahead.
Bring your chin to your chest, then roll your neck to the right, bringing your right ear toward your right shoulder. This movement should be slow and controlled, and it should respect your flexibility.
You should feel a nice stretch as you roll your neck, but you shouldn’t feel pain. If you do feel pain, discontinue the movement.
When your ear is close to your right shoulder, pause for a beat, then reverse the movement, rolling your chin back to your chest and continuing to roll through, bringing your left ear toward your left shoulder.
Your shoulders shouldn’t move as you perform the rolling action. The only thing that’s moving is your neck. Continue the back-and-forth rolling action for a total of 10 rolls per side.
Finish with your chin to your chest before lifting your head back to its regular position. Perform two to three sets.
The armpit stretch is so named because it looks like you’re sniffing your armpits while you do it.
Technically this stretch targets the levator scapulae, which is a muscle in your upper back and shoulder region that helps lift the shoulder blade.
When your levator scapulae are constantly tight due to stress or bad posture, this often contributes to neck pain and stiffness.
How to do it
Sit tall with perfect posture, keeping your core engaged. Turn your head toward the right and look down, leaning your chin and nose toward your right armpit.
Gently place your right hand on the top of your head and use it to help draw your head further down, until you feel a stretch through the left side of your neck and shoulder.
Hold the position for 30 seconds before releasing the stretch. Repeat on the opposite side.
Perform two sets of 30 seconds per side, or reduce the number of seconds you hold the stretch, increasing the number of repetitions.
The goal is to complete 60 seconds of stretching per side.
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