Painful neck symptoms from poor posture can range anywhere from sharp pain that prevents normal movements to a dull ache that becomes unbearable by day’s end. When the neck hurts, most people want immediate relief. However, while exercises are typically part of a comprehensive treatment program for neck pain, it is important to keep in mind some precautions before starting.

Consult a Medical Professional Prior to Physical Therapy

Illustration of a doctor and patient.

Consulting with a qualified healthcare professional can help with accurate diagnoses and effective treatments.

Before beginning any neck stretching or exercise program, it is advised to consult a health professional, such as a physical therapist, physiatrist, or chiropractor.

See Physical Therapy Exercise for Pain Relief

The goal of a health consultation is twofold:

  1. Get an accurate diagnosis. Depending on the cause of the neck pain or stiffness, different clinical diagnoses may dictate different types of exercises.

    See Diagnosing Neck Pain

  2. Learn the correct form. Doing the right exercises but with the wrong form is a common mistake that can lead to lack of improvement or even increased pain and symptoms.

    See How a Physical Therapist Can Help with Exercise

The neck’s vertebrae in the cervical spine are affected by so many other muscle groups (such as the back, shoulder, and chest), it may also be necessary to have a practitioner perform soft tissue work such as massage and manual stretching in conjunction with neck exercises.


Neck Exercises Should Not Cause Pain

3D image of radiating neck pain.

If an exercise exacerbates neck pain, it should be stopped immediately.

While neck stretching and exercises may be somewhat uncomfortable when performed as part of a treatment program for neck pain, they should not cause or exacerbate neck pain.

See Treatment for Neck Pain

If a neck exercise is painful or does not feel right, it should be stopped and a medical evaluation should be sought.


Manage Pain Well Enough to Perform Neck Exercises

An  Illustration of pills or medication.

Medications may be taken to provide short-term pain relief before engaging in exercises.

Sometimes neck pain must be reduced before the neck can move enough to do exercises. In such cases, a doctor may suggest one or more of the following:

Once the pain is managed well enough to start improving movement in the neck, physical therapy exercises can begin and help facilitate a stronger, more flexible neck, as well as a further reduction in pain.

When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention

Red flags of neck pain.

Increased pain, stiffness, or other concerning symptoms must be reported to a doctor.

In some cases, neck pain could indicate a serious underlying condition that needs to be evaluated by a physician. Patients are advised to seek medical attention if neck pain is accompanied by any of the following:

  • Symptoms that radiate into the arm, such as pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness
  • Pain following an accident or fall
  • Pain that does not subside within a few days
  • Coordination or balance problems
  • Fever, chills, or nausea

See Understanding Hand Pain and Numbness

If neck pain is the result of a serious underlying condition, such as meningitis or cancer, neck exercises will not help and could delay receiving a time-sensitive treatment.

See When Neck Stiffness May Mean Meningitis

Gavin Morrison is a physical therapist and founder of Pro Motion Physical Therapy in Boise, ID. He has more than 15 years of experience providing outpatient orthopedic spine care, sports rehabilitation, and injury prevention training.

Find a Spine Center Near You

Search for a Spine Center