Physical Therapy for Neck Pain: How It Works, What to Expect, and Recommended Exercises

Learn how to treat and overcome neck pain with physical therapy and exercise, and get tips to prevent neck pain flares from occurring in the future.

Published Date: Aug 11, 2023
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From sitting in front of a computer to looking down at a phone screen a few hundred times a day, it’s no wonder so many people experience neck pain. If it’s not tech neck that’s an issue for you, it could be sleeping in an awkward position or lifting something in a way that didn’t work for you. Or your neck pain could be influenced by a condition like arthritis or other spinal changes. 

Although ongoing neck pain can be debilitating and interfere with your daily activities and overall quality of life, physical therapy can make a big difference in how you feel. Physical therapy is a proven non-invasive, drug-free approach to effectively manage, reduce, and, in some cases, prevent neck pain. 

Whether you're an athlete with a sports injury, an office worker with a stiff neck, or someone coping with age-related changes to your neck, you can always reclaim a life with less pain by following a personalized care plan from a physical therapist. 

Physical therapy is “treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant that helps people improve their movement and physical function, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease,” according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and much more. It’s a digital musculoskeletal clinic that helps people take control of their pain and other symptoms by providing physical therapy, exercise therapy, education, and health coaching, among other offerings. 

Here, we’ll explain how physical therapy is used to treat neck pain generally and explain how Hinge Health offers access to physical therapy and more. (To see if you qualify for the Hinge Health program, confirm coverage at no cost to you through your employer here.)

Our Hinge Health Experts

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.
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.

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Neck Pain Explained

Neck pain impacts the cervical spine, which is the neck region of your spinal column. The cervical spine begins at the base of the skull and includes seven vertebrae (bones) that are separated by shock-absorbing discs, nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and more. 

Neck pain can be localized to one spot or it can extend to your head, upper back, shoulders, and arms. It can be acute (lasting less than 12 weeks) or chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks). 

Your neck is involved in a lot of your day-to-day movements. While that makes it very strong and resilient, it also means you can experience neck pain for a number of different reasons, including muscle tension, neck strain, stress, injuries such as whiplash, and musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, or degenerative disc disease. 

Although neck pain can be, well, a pain in the neck, it’s not something you have to just deal with. Whether you have tight neck muscles or a diagnosis of disc degeneration, you’re not stuck. How do we know this? As one example, a systematic review that included 3,852 participants found that exercise reduced the risk of new neck pain episodes. Another review that looked at over 1,000 participants across nine studies found that therapeutic exercise improved both short-term and intermediate-term neck pain. And another study found that muscle training combined with home-based exercise may significantly reduce chronic neck pain, plus anxiety and depression levels.

How Can Physical Therapy Help My Neck?

Sometimes having neck pain can make you feel fragile or limited — like you have to avoid exercise or your daily activities, or take great caution with everything you do, to avoid further injury. 

“This couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. "No matter what’s involved in your neck pain, there’s always something you can do to improve it. And that often starts with moving more." 

Although movement and exercise can sometimes cause a slight and temporary uptick in pain, it’s actually one of the best things you can do for neck pain.

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
We now know that things can actually become worse with too much rest. Not moving is riskier than moving in spite of some pain.

You may not be able to control every issue involved in your neck pain, but you do have the power to change some important things. 

This is where physical therapy comes in. 

Neck Symptoms and Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is one of the first nonsurgical treatments providers recommend for many cases of neck pain. Targeted exercises can help relieve pain while strengthening and stretching weakened or strained muscles.

Physical therapy can help you manage a lot of different neck pain symptoms, including: 

  • Persistent achiness that gets worse when you hold your head in the same position 

  • Neck and shoulder pain with muscle spasms

  • Stabbing or burning pain 

  • Increased sensitivity to light touch or pressure

  • Stiffness or tension that makes it difficult to move your head 

  • Headaches 

  • Pain that starts in your neck and also affects your upper back, shoulders, or arms

  • Pain or tension in your jaw that also affects your neck 

Neck Conditions and Physical Therapy

Neck pain may be related to many different conditions that can be effectively treated or managed with physical therapy. These include: 

  • Osteoarthritis 

  • Spinal stenosis

  • Degenerative disc disease

  • Muscle tension and neck strain (often related to everyday activities, such as sitting in one position for too long, carrying heavy items your body isn’t prepared for, sleeping in an awkward position, jerking your head during exercise, and gritting your teeth) 

  • Bone spurs

  • Changes in the spine

  • Pinched nerve (also called cervical radiculopathy)

  • Herniated disc (also called a ruptured or slipped disc)

  • Injury (such as whiplash) 

  • Pain related to stress (both mental and physical) 

Whether neck pain is primarily due to one of these conditions or something else, physical therapy can offer a lot of benefits for pain and function.

Goals of Physical Therapy for Neck Pain

The ultimate goal of physical therapy is to help you get back to doing what you love, without being hindered by pain or limitations on your mobility and function. This includes: 

  • Relieve pain. A primary goal of physical therapy for neck pain is to reduce pain and discomfort so you can do what you want and need to do each day. Physical therapists provide guidance on how to perform therapeutic exercises that are tailored for your needs and goals. 

  • Improve range of motion. Neck pain can restrict your neck’s normal range of motion, leading to stiffness and limited mobility. Physical therapy focuses on restoring range of motion with targeted exercises and stretches. This helps loosen tight muscles, improve flexibility, and promote better joint movement.

  • Strengthen and stabilize neck muscles. Muscles that have lost strength can contribute to neck pain and instability. Physical therapists prescribe specific strengthening exercises to target the muscles that support your neck. These exercises improve muscle strength, endurance, and stability. This reduces strain on your neck and improves overall function.

  • Provide education and self-management techniques. Physical therapists play a vital role in educating patients about their symptoms and conditions, providing self-management strategies and lifestyle changes, and empowering them to take an active role in their recovery. Physical therapists can help you make lifestyle modifications as needed and teach you how you can manage pain on your own (especially with movement and exercise) so you can keep making progress toward your goals. 

  • Share prevention tips. Physical therapy isn’t just about managing current pain episodes. It’s also about equipping you with tools and knowledge to prevent future neck pain flares and maintain a healthy neck and body. Physical therapists may provide guidance on ongoing exercises, self-care strategies, and lifestyle modifications to minimize the risk of reinjury and promote long-term neck health.

The goals and treatment approaches used in physical therapy will vary depending on your specific condition and needs. A thorough assessment by a qualified physical therapist will help determine the most appropriate treatment plan tailored to your unique situation.

Physical Therapy, Exercise Therapy, and Hinge Health 

Physical therapy means you are getting treatment from a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant. At Hinge Health, our members can see their own licensed physical therapist who personalizes and oversees their care plan. Hinge Health physical therapists focus on what we call exercise therapy, or therapeutic exercises.

Exercise therapy means following a treatment plan of different types of exercises to help relieve pain, improve function and mobility, recover from injuries, and manage chronic conditions. Many people associate “exercise” only with getting fit or losing weight. We at Hinge Health love the phrase exercise therapy because it speaks to one of our main treatment philosophies: Movement is medicine.

Exercise therapy and physical therapy are not interchangeable. Our physical therapists prescribe exercise therapy to our members. Following your own personalized exercise therapy routine is one of the best ways to heal your neck pain and prevent it from recurring. 

Neck Pain Recovery with Hinge Health

If you’re experiencing neck pain that makes it hard to move freely, you can get relief with Hinge Health. A digital clinic for joint and muscle care, Hinge Health provides members with access to their own physical therapist, in addition to other program offerings (guided exercise therapy, personalized health coaching, education, and more). 

It can be very challenging to stay consistent in doing exercise therapy, but research shows that consistency is the best way to build a habit and maximize your results. Our physical therapists, health coaches, doctors, and other care team members all share a common goal of helping our members make exercise therapy a habit so they can get back to doing what they love.

Hinge Health physical therapists can give you an assessment and provide you with personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals. Our physical therapists are trained to rule out any serious causes of your pain, modify your activities, empower you with tools to help you hurt less, and provide you with a personalized program to strengthen your body and help you recover.

Meeting with a Hinge Health Physical Therapist

Unlike many traditional physical therapy visits, you can meet with a Hinge Health physical therapist via video visit. That means, from the comfort of your own home, you can discuss your symptoms and goals with a physical therapist. They can conduct a movement assessment, observing how you move through different ranges of motion — and then create a personalized plan for you based on their findings. They can show you how to perform certain exercises and make sure you feel confident performing those movements on your own.

In addition to looking at your movement patterns and showing you how to do certain exercises, your video visit with a physical therapist provides you the opportunity to ask questions about your pain, function, and progress in the Hinge Health program. Your physical therapist can also make modifications to the exercises in your Hinge Health program to help you along the way to healing. 

Hinge Health's Proven Results and Effectiveness

Hinge Health members have access to a library of therapeutic exercises designed to help you overcome your neck pain. This involves a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. Your physical therapist can then tailor those exercises even further to better suit your needs and help you achieve your specific goals. 

We’ve published clinical studies with over 10,000 Hinge Health members, in collaboration with researchers at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. These show that our members experience, on average, a 68% reduction in pain in their first 12 weeks alone. Of course, beating pain has other benefits, too. These members experienced a 58% decrease in anxiety and depression on average over that same period.

Importance of Health Coaching 

Another facet of the Hinge Health program that sets it apart: personalized health coaching. In addition to having tailored exercises and access to a physical therapist, many Hinge Health members work with a health coach. Their job: to be your partner and support you on your Hinge Health journey.

Valerie Black, Senior Director of Behavioral Science at Hinge Health
The hard truth is that once we know what to do for our pain, many of us have trouble actually doing it. We think knowing what to do should get us all the way to our goal, but that often isn't enough. This is normal, and it’s where health coaching comes in.

“Coaches are experts at listening, reflecting, encouraging, and helping members get routines in place. They are helpful for accountability and for moving past obstacles and thinking through where to put a new habit into your life," says Black.

Your coach can share information and guidance on the exercises and education concepts in your program, help you stay motivated and accountable, celebrate your progress and support you in working through obstacles, and help you explore meaningful goals and ways to reach them.

Exercise Therapy for Neck Pain Relief

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Chin Tuck
  • Head Turns
  • Thread the Needle
  • Scapular Squeezes

These neck exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists help build neck strength, flexibility, and mobility. These act as a good starting point, but you can also work with a physical therapist for more personalized guidance. 

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.

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. The Physical Therapy Profession. (n.d.). American Physical Therapy Association, Retrieved from https://www.apta.org/contentassets/5a330c03bbe24a999608030270ced59c/physical-therapy-overview-high-early-college.pdf 

  2. de Campos, T. F., Maher, C. G., Steffens, D., Fuller, J. T., & Hancock, M. J. (2018). Exercise programs may be effective in preventing a new episode of neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Physiotherapy, 64(3), 159–165. doi:10.1016/j.jphys.2018.05.003

  3. Bertozzi, L., Gardenghi, I., Turoni, F., Villafane, J. H., Capra, F., Guccione, A. A., & Pillastrini, P. (2013). Effect of Therapeutic Exercise on Pain and Disability in the Management of Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials. Physical Therapy, 93(8), 1026–1036. doi:10.2522/ptj.20120412

  4. Nazari, G., Bobos, P., Billis, E., & MacDermid, J. C. (2018). Cervical flexor muscle training reduces pain, anxiety, and depression levels in patients with chronic neck pain by a clinically important amount: A prospective cohort study. Physiotherapy Research International, 23(3), e1712. doi:10.1002/pri.1712

  5. Exercise answer: Research shows it’s how often you do it, not how much: We all know exercise is important, but is it better to do a little every day, or a lot a few times a week? (2022, August 15). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220815085707.htm

  6. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. New York: Penguin Random House

  7. Bailey, J.F., Agarwal, V., Zheng, P., Smuck, M., Fredericson, M., Kennedy, D.J. & Krauss, J (2020). Digital care for chronic musculoskeletal pain: 10,000 participant longitudinal cohort study. Journal of medical internet research. 22(5), e18250. doi:org/10.2196/18250