If you suffer from chronic neck pain, exercising may be the last thing on your mind. It's hard to imagine working the very area of your body that is causing you discomfort, but exercises aimed at relieving the symptoms of cervical disc disease and chronic neck pain may be just what your body needs. Here we'll discuss some of the causes of neck pain and explore some of the exercises that may help relieve your symptoms.
Conditions That Cause Neck Pain
Neck pain can generally be categorized as either acute or chronic. Acute neck pain can be caused by an injury to the cervical vertebrae, discs, or joints, such as blunt-force trauma, or a strain to area muscles, such as whiplash. Chronic, or long-term, neck pain can be caused by several conditions, including:
- Cervical disc disease: A degeneration of the disc through normal aging processes, where the disc loses its ability to cushion the vertebrae or leaks its fluid, placing pressure on surrounding nerves.
- Herniated disc: A bulging of the damaged disc that impinges on area nerves.
- Osteoarthritis: A wearing down of the cartilage protecting the facets that join vertebrae together, allowing bones to grind against each other.
- Cervical stenosis: A narrowing of the passageways (foramina) where nerves or the spinal cord pass through each vertebra.
Any of these conditions can cause pain, numbness, and tingling down the arms, as well as loss of mobility in the upper extremities, which can have deleterious effects on daily life. Simple tasks—such as gripping, raising your arms, or lifting—can become uncomfortable, difficult, and, in worst-case scenarios, impossible.
One factor many people fail to recognize as a cause of chronic neck pain is poor posture. In fact, aside from trauma or whiplash, the majority of neck pain has some underlying postural component, which may be alleviated by simply improving the way you sit, stand, and hold your head.(1)
Exercising for a Healthier Neck
In many cases, neck pain will go away on its own. Strained muscles, when rested, can heal normally over time. Icing the area or using heat therapy can help reduce inflammation, as can anti-inflammatory drugs, steroid injections, or pain medications, allowing the body to heal itself naturally.
But while rest may be called for in certain situations, in others, exercise can help strengthen muscles, improve mobility, and correct bad habits that contribute to cervical neck pain. Let's explore some of these now.
The first step in any exercise regimen aimed at relieving neck pain should be to consult with a specialist who can diagnose your underlying condition. Exercise can exacerbate some cervical disorders, which will only make your pain and symptoms worse or possibly cause further damage to your neck. Once your condition is diagnosed, consult with your doctor on the right type of exercises, or have them refer you to a qualified physical therapist. Also, ask your doctor about pain management, which will enable you to perform the recommended exercises while minimizing discomfort.
The goal of most exercise programs is to increase flexibility and strength while conditioning the body through aerobic activity. Let's explore these important factors and how they can alleviate neck pain.
Stretching is key to maintaining or increasing range of motion and improving the flexibility of the cervical joints. Daily stretching will also alleviate stiffness while reducing muscle pain. Here are two common stretching exercises to improve neck mobility:
- Corner stretch: Stand facing a corner in a room, with your feet together and your forearms braced against each wall at about shoulder height. Lean into the corner while stretching your shoulders and chest for approximately 30 seconds.
- Scapular stretch: Lift your elbow above your shoulder, and brace your forearm against the wall, stretching the shoulder blade. Rotate your head away from the shoulder, and dip your chin downward, which will stretch the back of the neck. You can also apply light pressure with your free hand, gently tugging the head forward, to increase the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds.
Strength training can improve posture by building neck muscles that support the head, making it easier to maintain proper alignment of the head and shoulders. Here are two strengthening exercises to try:
- Chin tuck: Stand with your back against a doorjamb, and tuck your chin while placing your head flat against the jamb. Hold for five seconds, and repeat ten times.
- Back burn: Similar to the chin tuck, stand against a wall, extending your arms out flat against the wall. Slowly slide your arms up above the head and then back down, repeating ten times.
Stretching and strengthening exercises should be performed several times each day to keep muscles loose and to increase their flexibility.
Aerobic training can improve flexibility and range of motion in the neck muscles through improved circulation. Aerobic activities should be appropriate for your condition, age, and ability. Walking, biking, or using cardio machines at a gym will not only boost blood flow, but may help you lose weight while affording a natural high through the release of endorphins from the brain. Limiting excessive impact activities will reduce repetitive stress on the discs and allow you to exercise with less pain.
The Importance of Posture
One of the simplest ways of combating neck pain while warding off future complications is by improving your posture. Sitting up straight, holding your head upright, keeping your shoulders back and your chin tucked (the “military position”), and paying attention to body position can work wonders by preventing muscle strain and fatigue, keeping the spine properly aligned, and even improving breathing and circulation.
Practice proper posture when you're watching TV at home, sitting in front of your computer at work, or in the car. Your posture will improve over time, becoming more natural the more you practice, as with any exercise.
Whether your neck pain stems from cervical disc disease or some other disorder or injury, exercise plays an important role in decreasing symptoms, improving strength and mobility, and restoring healthy joints.
1 2011, Morrison, Gavin How Poor Posture Causes Neck Pain, Spine-Health, https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/neck-pain/how-poor-posture-causes-neck-pain
About the author
Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D. Nicknamed “Dr. Fix-It” by The Red Bulletin, Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D. makes an art of helping the world’s most elite athletes return to push the boundaries of performance. The neurological spine surgeon, recognized globally for his thorough diagnoses and pioneering minimally invasive approach, is quickly redefining sports medicine, one champion at a time. Dr. Bray founded the state-of-the-art, multi-disciplinary DISC Sports & Spine Center (DISC) in 2006 located in Los Angeles, CA. Read more articles by Robert S. Bray, Jr., M.D..