How to Relieve Neck Pain in 5 Easy Steps

5 steps to relieve your neck pain and headaches

1) Continue with your normal daily activities and exercise: It is important for us as humans to move our bodies. Movement and exercise help us heal. However pushing through sharp or shooting pain is not a healing experience and not necessary for improvements in strength or in this case, relieving pain. Immobilization and lack of movement can make the problem worse. Staying in bed will only de-condition your body and muscles. If you have a fracture, it is necessary to be immobilized for some time so the fracture can heal. If you have neck pain you should continue with your normal daily activities and exercise, modifying or backing off from any activity that causes sharp or shooting pain.

Neck Pain, Headache & Migraine Relief Exercises and Massage

2) Move your neck safely: It is important to teach your body that movement is not dangerous. Many times a tight, stiff, or painful muscle will be this way to brace the body against movement to protect it on a subconscious level. When no danger is present this often does not let go until till we “tell” it to ease up or “show” our body that it can move again in a certain direction without injury.

To begin moving your neck safely, sit and begin to turn your head side to side very slowly, staying within your pain free range of motion. Do not push past sharp or shooting pain. If it hurts too much to do this sitting in a chair, lie down on your back and try it. You can also give a gentle touch to your chin or forehead to help your neck turn.

3) Strengthen your deep neck flexors:  Chin tucks are also a great exercise to help relive neck pain and retrain the muscles of your neck. This exercise helps to activate the deep neck flexors, which through reciprocal inhibition help “turn off” the muscles in the back of your neck. This is the same mechanism that happens when you use your biceps of your arm to lift something with your hand. This contraction sends a signal to your triceps (the opposing muscle) to relax and lengthen. The video to the right demonstrates how to do both of these exercises as well as the massage techniques.

Thoracic Extension Exercises

4) Release the muscles that are tight: You can start with a few minutes of self-massage. Sit or lie down and rub your neck, right where it hurts. You may feel a very tight or tender area, treat it nice and be gentle. You can use your fingers to rub the areas that hurt. Start with a few circles in each direction. Then strum back and forth across the fiber or knots in the muscles. Finally, find the most tender spot, press gently until your body begins to resist, and hold this for 30 seconds or up to 3 minutes. Next, find the hollow area at the base of your skull. Many small, strong and tight muscles are here and massaging this area should feel good and may refer pain in the pattern of your headaches.

Don’t force anything, just press gently. You may also benefit from using a self-massage tool like a Theracane, Back Knobber, a Cranio Cradle or Occipivot.

5) See a physical therapist: If you are unsure of what you are doing, if all of these exercises cause sharp shooting pain and you have significant numbness or tingling, or you feel like what is going on with your body is not just neck pain, please seek the advice of a local physical therapist. In most states you can see a physical therapist directly without waiting to see your primary care physician or orthopedic surgeon first. A physical therapist will be able to determine the best, most conservative and cost effective solution for your problem. They will also know if your problem is more complicated and you do need an evaluation by a physician or surgeon.

Physical therapy can help you if you have neck pain, headaches, migraines, numbness and tingling in your hands, arms or face. There are no dangerous side effects to physical therapy, unlike with medications and surgery.

Other areas that are important to address when you have neck pain are your mid back (thoracic area) and the front of your shoulders (pectorals). The mid back is often stiff, tight and curved forward helping stick your head out past the center of your body. This creates more pressure and tension on the muscles holding your neck up. Think of your head like a bowling ball and the further forward it is, your neck muscles are required to pull much harder, for every 1/2 inch forward, it puts about an extra 10 pounds of pressure on the muscles in your neck.

This forward head posture often starts at the pelvis, but you can begin to work on it by releasing your pectorals or pecs, as well as your mid thoracic spine or mid back.

You can also stay there and find a really deep release by staying on the towel or yoga mat for an extended period of time, relaxing into the floor. This passive stretch will open the front of your neck and shoulders while gently moving or mobilizing your mid back. This should feel good. Stay here with your palms facing the ceiling, at least 3 minutes and up to 10. Be sure to roll on your side before getting up. Do not sit straight up, it will not injure you, but puts a lot of pressure, stress and strain on the muscles and structures of your neck and back.

Myofascial Release with a Ball

Lay on the ground, a mat, blanket or your bed. Each surface will provide a different level of resistance or pressure.

For this technique you can use a tennis ball, though I prefer a softer and more pliable ball which you should be able to find at a grocery store, Target, Wallmart, etc. You can use a dryer ball or any rubber or inflatable ball about the size of a baseball or softball.

Place a ball under your body, below your collar bone, in the muscle of your chest. Move your arm up and down along the floor, like a face down snow angel, and find the position that feels the tightest. “Crawl” your fingers away from you to lengthen your arm and shoulder, then “let go” and allow your arm and shoulder to relax and sink into the ball. Breathe deep and allow yourself to release, relax and unwind.

You can have your head to either side, or face down with your forehead on a towel, pillow or your other hand/arm.

These techniques are gentle, sustained and relaxing. You should allow yourself to move and adjust as you feel your body letting go, however, moving back and forth over the tender area is not the goal of this self-treatment technique.

These areas may feel tight, tender, or like “the spot” and the techniques should feel good.

Spend 3 to 5 minutes in each area to allow the fascia to release.

Slowly roll on your side to reposition or to stand up.

To learn more self treatment techniques using Myofascial Release and Myofascial Stretching, you can order the Myofascial Stretching Book which I recommend to all of my patients.

Preventing Neck Pain and Headaches

Many times it is the things we do not notice and that we do all day long repetitively that sets us up for injury. Our modern world works against us, especially for people who sit in the same place all day long. Movement is what keeps us going and sitting still in an office chair puts our bodies in a place that we were not built for.

Your computer or workstation may be causing or contributing to your neck pain, wrist pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, hip pain, sciatica, headaches or migraines. The video to the right shows how to set up your workstation. If you are still not sure that you have made the right changes ask if your company has an ergonomic specialist who can perform a workstation or ergonomic assessment for you.

Your company may also buy or reimburse you for a new chair or other items to help you achieve the best position and comfort. A happy and healthy employee (or boss) is a productive one. If you do not have this option, a physical therapist will be able to help you determine the best position and desk set up for you.


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