Man-stretching-his-neck-with-hand-while-working-from-home

Pinched Nerve in Your Neck: Best Exercises for Relief

Learn what a pinched nerve in the neck is and how to treat it, especially with exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Apr 27, 2023
Man-stretching-his-neck-with-hand-while-working-from-home

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t enjoy being pinched. And your nerves don’t either. But pinched nerves — and the pain, numbness, and tingling they often cause — are common. They occur when nerves become compressed or irritated by surrounding tissue. Pinched nerves can happen throughout your body, including in your neck. 

Unfortunately, having a pinched nerve in your neck doesn’t necessarily just affect the neck — symptoms can occur anywhere along the path of the affected nerve. “You can have a pinched or irritated nerve in the neck, but you could feel symptoms in your shoulder, hand, or thumb,” says CJ Morrow, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

Most cases of pinched nerves in your neck aren’t serious, but even mild symptoms can affect your mobility and make daily living difficult. Luckily, most people are able to make a full recovery with at-home treatments. Here, learn more about what causes a pinched nerve in the neck and how to treat it — especially with simple exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.  

Our Hinge Health Experts

CJ Morrow, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Morrow is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist with a special interest in the intersection of mental and physical health.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is a Pinched Nerve that Affects the Neck?

Nerves in the neck become pinched when they’re pressed on by surrounding tissues. “Nerves don’t like to be touched, so when something in the body rubs against one, it gets really sensitive,” says Dr. Morrow.

Symptoms typically occur on one side of the body (for instance, your right arm, not both arms). Unlike the localized pain of a pulled muscle or crick in the neck, pinched nerve symptoms often radiate to other areas supplied by the affected nerve. Certain neck movements — like turning or nodding your head — may increase the pain. 

“There’s a whole range of symptoms and they can differ from person to person, and you may have a combination of symptoms or only one,” says Dr. Morrow. “You can get that electrical, shooting, zapping type of pain that travels to your shoulder or hand, a ‘pins and needles’ type of tingling, or you can feel nothing — for instance, in your thumb when you’re trying to type — because you’re experiencing numbness.”

Neck Pain: A Hinge Health Perspective 

The neck is a strong and resilient structure — it has to be to support and turn your head, which weighs around 11 pounds. But when you have a pinched nerve in your neck, this key connection point can seem vulnerable. Your instinct may be to protect the area by not moving it. That would be precisely the wrong move, though. Indeed, as the Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine.

Here’s why: “When we don’t move, things get sticky and stagnant,” says Dr. Morrow. Our joint and cellular fluid gets thicker, making it harder for oxygen and nutrients to get in and for waste to get pushed out. Our muscles also get tighter because they’re not being put through their full range of motion. 

CJ Morrow, PT, DPT
When we have a nerve that’s hurting already, gentle progressive movements are the key to driving nutrients to the nerve, taking away all the junk, and giving that nerve the breathing room it needs.

Causes of Pinched Nerve in Neck

While most people use the term pinched nerve, it’s worth noting that many times, a “pinched nerve” is actually an irritated nerve. Whether a nerve in the neck is pinched or irritated, there can be a few different causes. 

Most of the time it’s due to age-related changes in the bones (vertebrae) and discs that make up the spine. These changes are normal and occur in everyone. Intervertebral discs can lose height and become stiffer over time, causing the vertebrae to move closer together. This can lead to a narrowing of the spaces where the nerves exit the spine, making it more likely for them to become pinched. The umbrella term for these changes is spondylosis, and it plays a role in everything from osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal) to degenerative disc disease and herniated discs, which occurs when the center of the disc pushes against the outer ring, which can press on a nearby spinal nerve. 

While cervical spondylosis can sound really scary, there are steps you can take to slow and prevent the painful problems it can cause — like pinched or irritated nerves. Regular exercise plays an important role, and this includes frequent “movement snacks.” 

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Exercises to Relieve Pinched Nerve in Neck

Exercise can go a long way toward taking the pain out of a pinched nerve in the neck. By strengthening and stretching the right muscles, your posture may change to help relieve pain, your movement becomes freer, and more space is created for a pinched or irritated nerve to move. 

These moves are commonly recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to help relieve pain caused by a pinched nerve in your neck. They’re very gentle, but be sure to stop if you feel any lasting or increased pain.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Other Treatments for Pinched Nerve in the Neck

Along with exercise, there are other conservative treatment options to help alleviate neck pain, including:

  • Massage. “The pressure of a massage increases blood flow to a painful area, bringing nutrients and oxygen that promote healing,” says Dr. Morrow. It can also ease swelling that may accompany compressed nerves.

  • Physical therapy. Physical therapists can give you an assessment and provide you with personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals. Physical therapists are trained to rule out any serious causes, modify your activities, empower you with tools to help you hurt less, and provide you with a program to strengthen your body and help you recover from a pinched nerve. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Over-the-counter medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for neck pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Acupuncture. Inserting very fine needles into the skin at specific points may relieve pain by releasing endorphins. “These ‘happy hormones’ make you feel good, and when you feel good, you move more,” says Dr. Morrow. 

  • Cold/heat therapy. Using heat and ice for a pinched nerve is a good way to reduce swelling, promote fresh blood flow to the area, and relax the surrounding muscles.

When to See a Doctor

Many cases of a pinched nerve will resolve on their own with time and self-care treatment. However, if after several days symptoms don’t improve or they get worse (for instance, you experience increased muscle weakness), then you should seek medical attention. 

PT Tip: Squeeze in Standing Breaks

“Taking a 30- to 60-second standing break every hour or so will increase productivity and relieve some of the tension that builds up when you sit for too long,” says Dr. Morrow. Hunching over a desk or computer all day puts pressure on your neck and spine, which can contribute to a pinched nerve. “If you can’t stand up, even just putting your hands behind your head and leaning back can be a great way to break up some of the postures that we’re in throughout the day.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Sciatica Treatment. (n.d.). Body Logic Physio. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?q=https://bodylogic.physio/conditions/sciatica-treatment/&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1682431177086500&usg=AOvVaw0Rg2PcE5x08lO2bZ7ATi7S

  2. Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). (2022, March 29). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22639-cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve

  3. Treating a pinched nerve. (2021, June 26). Harvard health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/treating-a-pinched-nerve

  4. Relieving pain with acupuncture. (2016, June 15). Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/relieving-pain-with-acupuncture

  5. Park, D. K. & Rodway, I. (2020, August). Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). OrthoInfo — American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve/#:~:text=Cervical%20radiculopathy%2C%20commonly%20called%20a,as%20muscle%20weakness%20and%20numbness