When the head and shoulders drift forward due to poor posture, some muscles in the chest and neck can shorten and become tight over time, which can perpetuate the poor posture that is causing neck pain.
The following stretching exercises can help loosen postural muscles and may reduce neck pain.
A basic exercise that is important for stretching the chest and shoulder muscles is the corner stretch. It is performed in the corner of a room.
This stretch is done as follows:
- Stand approximately two feet back from the corner, facing into the corner.
- Feet should be together.
- Forearms are placed on each wall, and elbows are a little below shoulder height (Figure 1).
- Lean in as far as possible without pain. Patients will feel a stretch in the front of the shoulders and chest (Figure 2).
- Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds to a minute.
This stretch can be performed 3 to 5 times per day. It is a good one to do before neck strengthening exercises.
Levator Scapulae Stretch
There are two levator scapulae muscles—one on each side of the neck—that attach to the top four transverse processes and go down to the shoulder. This muscle can become tight and may be tender where it attaches to the shoulder blade. Stretching this muscle can play a role in reducing neck pain.
The levator scapulae stretch can be performed while sitting or standing as follows:
- Lengthen the muscle by raising the elbow above the shoulder at the side to stretch.
- In this position, first rest the elbow against a door jamb. This action rotates the outside of the shoulder blade up and the inside of it down, which lengthens the levator scapulae muscle (Figure 3).
- Next, turn the head away from the side that is stretching and bring the chin down, stretching the back of the neck (Figure 4).
- Place the fingers of the other hand on the top of the head and gently pull the head forward increasing the stretch slightly (Figure 5).
- Hold this for about 30 seconds to a minute.
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If desired, the levator scapulae stretch can be repeated multiple times during the day.
Stretches for the neck should never be done to the point of pain or soreness. Appropriate pain management is often an important part of any neck stretching routine.
Common Neck Stretch to Avoid
Neck circles, which involve the slow rotation of the head being tilted and rolled in a full circle, have been performed by most people in gym class or while participating in a sport or dance class. However, research shows that the combination of extending the head backward and rotating it puts undue stress on the cervical spine. Compared to other neck movements, neck circles could also cause more compression of the arteries that take blood to the brain.1
Especially for a person who has been dealing with neck pain, neck circles are typically not recommended.
When to Do Stretches
Some experts recommend stretching tight muscles before strengthening weak muscles. The theory is that tight muscles relax after being stretched, and then subsequent strengthening exercises are more effective. However, this theory has not yet been scientifically proven.
Whether neck stretches are done before or after neck strengthening exercises may not have a big effect. In general, it is good to do both stretching and strengthening exercises, so long as they do not increase pain.2
- Middleditch A, Oliver J. Blood supply of the spinal cord and the vertebral column. In: Functional Anatomy of the Spine. 2nd ed. London, England: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. 2005: 153-72.
- Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012; 7(1):109-19.