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Dealing with Neck Tension? Get Stretches and Tips from Physical Therapists to Relieve It

Learn what might be making your neck tense and stiff — and get some simple stretches and exercises to prevent and treat it.

Published Date: Mar 14, 2023
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If you have a tense, painful neck, you know how unpleasant it feels. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning to a stiffness that makes it hard to start moving and get dressed. To make matters worse, it may be compounded by what you have on the docket for the day — a tennis match, a long day of meetings, or driving kids around. 

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to control what you have to do in a day, and sometimes those responsibilities play a role in neck stiffness. But if you stretch regularly and exercise your neck, you can help ensure that your neck stays happy and healthy. Read on to learn about additional ways to relieve and manage neck tension.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Steven Goostree, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Goostree is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopaedic clinical specialist.
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 Causes Pain and Tension in the Neck?

What causes tension in the neck? Your boss and your family, for starters. All joking aside, emotions are a big driver. “When we’re stressed, we store that tension in our neck or shoulder region,” explains Steven Goostree, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. That’s, in part, why neck tension is so common among adults — because it’s related to stress and anxiety. So after a fight with your partner or trying to meet a grueling work deadline, you might find that your neck feels out of whack. “That’s your body wanting to protect itself, so the muscles around your neck contract as part of the fight-or-flight response,” Dr. Goostree says. 

There are other reasons why you might have neck tension, too. They include:

Muscle strain. Staying in any position for a long time can cause an uptick in muscle tension and joint pain. This is why spending hours in front of a computer or looking at another device without a break causes tension to build up in the neck for a lot of people, says Dr. Goostree. It can also happen if you’ve spent a couple of hours in an awkward position where you have to look up a lot more than you’re used to — for example, craning your neck to see a performer at a live show or event. 

TMJ (temporomandibular joint dysfunction). This condition, which causes pain and problems with jaw joints and muscles, can actually lead to neck discomfort. In fact, it’s estimated that about 70% of neck pain can be traced, at least in part, back to TMJ. “Both areas are supplied by the same nerves, so when you’re stressed, you’ll clench not just your jaw muscles, but your neck muscles, too,” explains Dr. Goostree.

Sleeping position. At some point in life, most people will wake up with neck pain, especially if you move around in your sleep or sleep in a different place, like a friend’s house or a hotel. Changing pillows can be challenging. “If it’s too soft, too high, or too stiff, it can strain those muscles overnight,” Dr. Goostree explains.

Injury. If you’ve been in an accident such as a car crash, you may have experienced whiplash, where sudden movement forces your neck to move in a way that causes neck strain or sprain. 

Propping your head up. Your neck has the massive responsibility of propping up your head. That’s no small feat, because the average one weighs around 10 pounds. “Unlike the rest of your body, which is supported by large shoulder, back, and leg muscles, your head is really only controlled by much smaller neck muscles,” points out Dr. Goostree.

Symptoms of Neck Tension

Neck and shoulder tension is pretty easy to spot. You may experience: 

  • Pain that may get worse with holding your head in place for a long time (e.g., when driving or working at a computer) 

  • Muscle tightness and stiffness

  • Muscle spasms

  • Discomfort when your neck and shoulders are touched 

  • Difficulty moving your head

  • Headaches

There are also more subtle symptoms that neck tension is approaching, says Dr. Goostree. Here are three signs to watch for, before it turns into a huge pain in the neck (literally).

  • You’re clenching your teeth. “This sends a signal to your brain that you need to tighten up your neck muscles, which can cause a neck spasm,” says Dr. Goostree. 

  • You’ve got the start of a headache. “This can be a sign of jaw tension that may spread down to your neck, especially if you’ve been in the same sitting position for a few hours,” explains Dr. Goostree. (To help, stand up and walk around to give your muscles a break.) 

  • You’re breathing more quickly. When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes more shallow and rapid, says Dr. Goostree. But if this occurs, your brain responds by automatically tightening your neck muscles.

Stretches and Exercises for Neck Tension Relief

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There are so many different factors that can contribute to neck and shoulder tension, such as stress or your daytime job. And while you can’t control all the factors that affect neck tension, you can always control something. 

One of the best ways to take control of your pain, and prevent it from recurring, is through stretches and therapeutic exercises, says Dr. Goostree. “You want to keep your neck muscles and joints mobile.” When your neck is more flexible, it can reduce strain on your muscles and improve mobility and function. Translation: You may experience less pain and stiffness.

Try those moves, recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists, to help release tension in the neck.

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 Tips to Treat Neck Pain

Besides stretching and exercise, it can be hard to figure out on your own how to relax neck muscles. When I work with patients who have neck tension, I use the acronym MEDS,” says Dr. Goostree, “Meditation, exercise, diet, and sleep.” Here are the four key components:

Meditation

You can make it short and sweet if you want. “Even meditating for just five minutes a day can relieve some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety and release neck tension,” says Dr. Goostree. He especially recommends diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. While this isn’t a neck stretching or strengthening exercise per se, it allows you to center yourself, and focus on your breathing, to help relieve some of that neck tension, he says. A 2022 review published in the journal Diagnostics found that these types of breathing exercises can help improve neck pain.

Here’s how to do it: 

  • While sitting, place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose.

  • Tighten your stomach muscles. 

  • Exhale through pursed lips.

Exercise

Even if the activity you’re doing doesn’t involve your neck, it can still be really helpful. “Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the muscles in your neck region, which helps loosen things up,” explains Dr. Goostree. “It also releases endorphins, the natural painkillers in your brain.” 

Research backs this up. A 2020 study published in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation found that people with neck pain who did six weeks of neck-specific exercises along with aerobic exercise had less neck pain — and as a bonus, fewer headaches — than those who did just neck exercises alone.

Diet 

A well-balanced diet that’s rich in whole foods (e.g., fruits and veggies) and low in processed foods and added sugar can help reduce joint pain in your entire body. This is, in part, because a whole foods diet helps keep inflammation at bay. 

Dr. Goostree also recommends magnesium to help ensure muscles and nerves work optimally. Good sources include legumes, dark green leafy veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and fortified cereals. Talk to your provider if you’re thinking about taking any supplements.

Sleep

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least seven hours a night. And this is for good reason. A 2022 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that sleep disturbance was significantly associated with neck pain. And the longer the sleep disturbances went on, the greater the neck pain became. In another study, people with neck and shoulder pain reported poorer sleep quality than those without pain. Experts refer to this phenomenon as the pain-sleep cycle, where pain affects your ability to sleep and poor sleep worsens pain. 

Creating a consistent bedtime routine, getting regular exercise, and monitoring stimulant intake can all help you break the pain-sleep cycle. You can also try sleeping on your side or back. These positions tend to be easier on your neck than sleeping on your stomach. Dr. Goostree also recommends using a flat, firm pillow to keep your neck in good alignment. (One that’s too high or too stiff can keep your neck in a flexed position all night, which leads to morning neck tension.)

PT Tip: Adjust Your Office Chair

How and where you sit, as well as how long you sit, can play a big role in neck pain and tension. If you sit in an office chair for a good part of your day, it might be worthwhile to invest in one that works for you. 

Look for one that has a built-in lumbar roll to help maintain the natural curve in the low back. “This will automatically encourage you to sit up taller,” Dr. Goostree explains. It also helps to have armrests so you can relax your elbows and arms as you work. “A lot of times, when we’re stressed, we shrug our shoulders and bring them up towards our ears,” he says. This can cause both back and neck pain.

Even with the right chair, it’s good to remember that our bodies weren’t built to do the same repetitive activity for hours at a time, whether sitting at a desk or on the couch or even sleeping awkwardly. Every half hour to an hour, take a break from sitting to stand, stretch, take a brief stroll, or even just shift your position. This gives you a chance to tune in to how you’re holding your body, and reset it in a more relaxed position.

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. Kazeminasab, S., Nejadghaderi, S. A., Amiri, P., Pourfathi, H., Araj-Khodaei, M., Sullman, M. J. M., Kolahi, A.-A., & Safiri, S. (2022). Neck pain: global epidemiology, trends and risk factors. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 23(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-021-04957-4

  2. Silveira, A., Gadotti, I. C., Armijo-Olivo, S., Biasotto-Gonzalez, D. A., & Magee, D. (2015). Jaw Dysfunction Is Associated with Neck Disability and Muscle Tenderness in Subjects with and without Chronic Temporomandibular Disorders. BioMed Research International, 2015, 1–7. doi:10.1155/2015/512792

  3. Tatsios, P. I., Grammatopoulou, E., Dimitriadis, Z., Papandreou, M., Paraskevopoulos, E., Spanos, S., Karakasidou, P., & Koumantakis, G. A. (2022). The Effectiveness of Spinal, Diaphragmatic, and Specific Stabilization Exercise Manual Therapy and Respiratory-Related Interventions in Patients with Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Diagnostics, 12(7), 1598. doi:10.3390/diagnostics12071598

  4. Daher, A., Carel, R. S., Tzipi, K., Esther, H., & Dar, G. (2020). The effectiveness of an aerobic exercise training on patients with neck pain during a short- and long-term follow-up: a prospective double-blind randomized controlled trial. Clinical Rehabilitation, 34(5), 617–629. doi:10.1177/0269215520912000

  5. Diaphragmatic Breathing & Benefits. (2022, March 30). Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing#:~:text=Diaphragmatic%20breathing%20is%20meant%20to,heart%20rate%20and%20improving%20relaxation.

  6. Say Goodnight to Neck Pain. (2022, February 2). Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/say-good-night-to-neck-pain

  7. Are You Getting Enough Sleep? (2022, September 19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/features/getting-enough-sleep.html

  8. Nutrition. (n.d.). Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/nutrition

  9. Yabe, Y., Hagiwara, Y., Sekiguchi, T., Sugawara, Y., Tsuchiya, M., Yoshida, S., & Tsuji, I. (2022). Sleep disturbance is associated with neck pain: a 3-year longitudinal study after the Great East Japan Earthquake. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 23(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-022-05410-w

  10. Lee, M. K., & Oh, J. (2022). The relationship between sleep quality, neck pain, shoulder pain and disability, physical activity, and health perception among middle-aged women: a cross-sectional study. BMC Women’s Health, 22(1). doi:10.1186/s12905-022-01773-3