What Are the Best Stretches for Stiff Necks?

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When your neck is stiff or sore, literally every move you make can be painful, making it hard to focus on anything else. Fortunately, a stiff neck is usually just a minor injury that heals on its own without need of medical attention. It could happen due to muscle strain from playing a sport or other activity, or it could even be caused by sleeping with your head at an odd angle all night. Regardless of the reason, a stiff neck causes enough discomfort to have you looking for some relief.

Although you shouldn’t attempt to care for more severe injuries — whiplash from a car accident, for example — on your own, there are some good self-care options for minor aches and stiffness. Whether high stress caused neck spasms or you slept in an awkward position or tweaked a neck muscle in a ball game, certain types of neck stretches can help you alleviate the pain. Here’s a look at some of the best exercises for stiff necks.

Start with Some Quick and Easy Neck Stretches

Simple stretches can help loosen tight neck muscles and alleviate discomfort. Many can be done while you’re sitting in your computer chair at work. Start by moving your ear toward your shoulder blade while pushing your head backwards into your headrest for about 30 seconds. Do this at least 10 times on each side throughout the day.

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Combine this with squeezing your shoulder blades tightly together 10 times and rolling your shoulder blades backwards and down 10 times to work both your shoulders and your neck. These moves also provide great tension relief when you’re stuck in traffic.

Focus on Specific Stretches for Pain Relief

If your neck actually hurts, you might need to resort to different stretches than the simple ones previously mentioned to help relieve the pain. One of the easiest stretches to do is a basic neck rotation. Keep your back straight and your shoulders still. Look straight ahead and turn your head to the left very slowly as far as you can go, but stop when you feel pain. Hold the position for 5 seconds. Repeat the process with your head turned to the right.

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A neck extension may be a better choice if you’re feeling more than mild pain. While keeping your shoulders and back still, look up and extend your neck and then move your head backwards. Once you’ve moved your head as far back as it can go without causing pain, hold the position for 5 seconds. You should feel this stretch through your throat.

Forward bending and side-to-side bending, also known as neck flexion and lateral neck flexion, are also options for stretching a stiff neck. For forward bending, lower your chin toward your chest and look downward, only moving your head. Once you’ve moved your head down as far as you can without pain, hold the position for 5 seconds. You should feel this stretch throughout the back of your neck.

For side-to-side bending, bend your head to the side, moving your left ear toward the left shoulder. Your shoulders and back should remain still. Once you’ve stretched as far as you can without pain, hold the position for 5 seconds. Repeat the same movement on the other side. You should only perform each type of stretch once during a short time period, especially if you’re in pain, but you can repeat stretches throughout the day, particularly if you feel it’s helping reduce the pain. You can apply ice or heat for pain as well.

Build Stronger Neck Muscles to Eliminate Future Problems

Injuries aren’t the only reasons to do some soothing neck stretches. Weak neck muscles will always be more susceptible to injuries that cause stiffness and soreness, and all muscles grow weaker over time if you don’t use them. To prevent recurring pain from a stiff neck, you need to start taking better care of your neck muscles. In addition to doing simple neck stretches each day, you can make a couple of other simple changes that can help.

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Are you a stomach sleeper? Try sleeping on your side or back instead of your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach increases the risk of twisting your neck in the middle of the night and waking up with a sore neck. Posture is another important thing to keep in mind. If you normally sit in an office chair and stare at a computer screen for the majority of the day, it can break down your back and neck muscles, especially if the viewing angle is awkward. Use an ergonomic chair that provides support and strength while you sit. If that’s not possible, wear a posture corrector under your clothing to help remind you to sit properly.