Physical Therapy For Neck Pain: Top 5 Exercises To Try At Home

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re seeking a way to prevent neck pain discomfort and regain mobility. You’re not alone; almost a third of the world’s population shares your struggle. 

This article is your definitive guide to understanding neck pain, its causes, the crucial role physical therapy plays in its management, and, more importantly, five practical exercises you can perform at home to alleviate the discomfort. The goal here is to provide information and offer practical, easy-to-follow steps towards a pain-free life. 

Let’s embark on this journey towards improved health together.

Understanding the Common Factors Involved with Neck Pain

Neck pain often occurs as a result of a cumulative breakdown due to other areas of the body failing to provide adequate support for the neck. This is common among individuals who have a habit of sitting in a rounded posture, possibly even with a forward head position. The most efficient posture aligns the ears, shoulders, and hips (in a seated position).

However, when this ideal posture isn’t maintained, multiple physical issues can emerge:

  • Tightness in the upper neck at the base of the skull
  • Weakness in the deep neck flexors (at the front of the neck)
  • Inflammation in the mid neck and upper trapezius
  • Tightness in the upper trapezius muscles
  • Tightness in the mid-back or thoracic spine
  • Weakness in the spinal erectors, running from the head to the sacrum
  • Tightness in the shoulders

The Solution: Focus on Postural Muscles

While it’s tempting to focus on stretching symptomatic areas like the Upper Trapezius muscles, a better approach involves strengthening your postural muscles. By supporting a more balanced, seated position, you can relieve stress on the neck and shoulders. This not only reduces your symptoms but also improves your posture.

Embarking on the Path to Recovery: Five Essential Exercises for Neck Pain Relief

Beginning the journey towards pain-free living doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Here, we will delve into five carefully selected exercises designed to address the root causes of your neck pain, rather than merely treating the symptoms. This proactive approach focuses on rectifying the underlying issues, providing a more lasting and effective solution.

Exercise 1: Crab to Bridge 

  • Begin in the crab position, with hands angled 45 degrees away from your body and elbows straight.
  • Push the floor away with straight arms to expand the chest and engage the shoulders.
  • Press through the feet and hands to lift your bottom off the floor and reach the bridge position.
  • Aim to align ears, shoulders, hips, and knees at the top of the move.

Exercise 2: Cervical Rotations on a stable base (propped)

Just stretching the neck won’t be enough for long-term improvement in mobility. To make a mobility pattern functional and ingrained in the body’s “memory”, it’s crucial that the body feels safe while performing the range of motion. 

A key to safe neck mobility lies in engaging our shoulder muscles, core, and spinal erectors. They all come together to provide the necessary support for the neck during movements. One of the ways to safely improve neck mobility is through a routine involving a propped position. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Start in a propped position, ensuring that your elbows are directly under your shoulders and both forearms are pressing firmly into the ground.
  • Press the floor away from you to round your mid back. This helps in engaging the muscles around the spine.
  • Slide one knee towards the same side elbow, keeping your shoulders squared. As you do this, try to look towards your knee. This initiates neck rotation.
  • After each repetition, remember to reset your shoulders to ensure the stability of your trunk. This is an important part of maintaining a safe posture throughout the exercise.
  • Continue the movement, alternating sides in each repetition.

Exercise 3: Propped Reaching Diagonals 

Improving the flexibility and mobility of your neck can be significantly aided by Range of Motion (ROM) exercises. These exercises, when performed in a stable postural position, tend to yield better results according to our observations with patients. Here’s a simple guide to one such exercise:

  • Begin in a propped prone position: This position provides the necessary stability for these exercises.
  • Reach out and slide one arm across your body: The goal is to extend your arm as far as you comfortably can.
  • Drive down through the opposite arm to draw a diagonal circle to the same side hip: This step engages both the arm and shoulder muscles, and also enhances neck mobility.
  • Alternate sides throughout the movement: This ensures balanced engagement and mobility of both sides of your neck.
  • Keep your eyes on your moving hand the entire time: This step is crucial for maintaining focus and coordination during the exercise.

If you experience discomfort, don’t hesitate to ease up on the exercise or seek guidance from a healthcare professional.

Exercise 4: Scapular Pushes

This exercise will encourage scapular and Thoracic mobility, while demanding that the cervical and lumbar spine maintain stability. 

  • Start from a plank position: Ensure that your belly is lifted, preventing any sagging in the lower back.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together: Remember to keep your elbows straight while doing this.
  • Push the floor away to separate the shoulder blades: Doing so will result in a rounding of your midback.
  • Repeat this movement pattern: Consistent repetition is key to achieving desired results.

Throughout the exercise, make sure your chest leads the movement rather than your neck. Your neck should stay in a neutral position, aligning with your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in a straight line.

Note: For individuals who find the floor plank position too challenging, an alternative is performing this exercise leaning into a wall. The idea is to achieve the same motion and benefits without the added stress.

Exercise 5: Flank/Shoulder Stretch

Here’s an effective stretch designed to target all the areas that often tighten due to prolonged sitting. Follow these steps for a comprehensive stretching experience:

  • Start from a half kneel position: Tuck your tail under you to open the front of the hip of the kneeling leg and engage your abdominal muscles.
  • Overhead towel press: Hold a towel with both hands and press it straight overhead.
  • Maintain the pelvic tilt: As you’re maintaining your tail tuck, pull your arms backward and towards the side of your front leg.
  • Include your neck muscles in the stretch: As you perform the movements, keep your eyes on the hand of the side you’re stretching. This ensures that your neck muscles are included in the stretch.

Understanding Neck Pain: A Common Affliction

Neck pain, or cervicalgia, is something most people have experienced in some way, shape or form throughout our lives. Some neck pain is fleeting, and some neck pain lingers and persists. Most neck pain has a postural component, and can benefit from some form of physical therapy. 

The exercises above are a guide, and will address the most common deficits we see in patients with neck pain. 

However, it is still best to consult a professional to make sure your exact injury is being properly addressed. 

Common Causes of Neck Pain: Understanding the Source

Neck pain can stem from a variety of sources:

  • Cumulative Stress and Muscle Strain: This is often related to postural issues. Manual therapy and certain exercises can address muscle spasms, inflammation, and poor posture, relieving stress on the neck and back muscles and joints.
  • Acute Injuries: Fractures or disc herniations can trigger significant pain and can be debilitating if left unaddressed.
  • Chronic Conditions: Osteoarthritis, scoliosis, or temporomandibular dysfunction are other considerations when dealing with neck pain. Fortunately, physical therapy offers numerous ways to improve symptoms and function.

The Role of a Physical Therapist in Neck Pain Management

While most neck pain is benign and originates from muscular issues, overlooking a severe condition associated with neck symptoms can have long-term consequences. Here’s why professional advice is crucial:

  • Screening for Dangerous Conditions: A physical therapist, doctor, or other expert musculoskeletal provider can effectively screen for potentially dangerous conditions related to neck pain such as radiculopathy, spinal cord compression, or even fracture.
  • Guided Treatment: Most of the time, neck pain can be easily addressed with physical therapy. However, it’s crucial to have a healthcare professional evaluate you and ensure you’re addressing your specific issue safely and effectively.

Physical Therapy to Reduce Neck Pain: An Essential Approach

Physical therapy plays a pivotal role in the non-surgical management of neck pain, offering a robust, patient-centered approach. 

Let’s delve into how physical therapy can provide pain relief.

The Advantages of Physical Therapy: A Holistic Approach To Reduce Pain

Physical therapy for neck pain is advantageous on many levels, working in sync with your body’s unique mechanisms. Here’s how this form of therapy stands out:

  • Comprehensive: By addressing the root cause and not just the symptoms, physical therapy aims to eliminate pain for the long term.
  • Safe and Non-Invasive: Physical therapy doesn’t require medications or surgery, thus avoiding potential side effects or complications.
  • Personalized: It offers tailor-made treatments based on individual needs, maximizing the potential for effective results.

Precautions and Safety Measures When Exercising at Home

At-home exercises like the ones above can effectively manage neck pain, but it’s crucial to approach them safely. Your health is priceless, and while physical therapy exercises are designed to alleviate discomfort, improper execution could lead to unnecessary injuries or worsen your condition. 

Therefore, ensuring you are performing exercises correctly and safely is always necessary.

The Importance of Healthcare Consultation Before Trying Exercises

Before performing any new exercise regimen, consulting with a healthcare professional is highly recommended. This could be a doctor, physical therapist, or qualified fitness trainer. Physical Therapists, for instance, can evaluate your condition, guide you on the most suitable exercises, and monitor your progress.

This step is particularly crucial if you’re dealing with chronic neck pain, have a history of injuries, or if you are experiencing any potential nerve type symptoms like numbness, tingling, or weakness. 

Exercise is beneficial but must be tailored to your individual health circumstances.

Specific Precautions for Individuals with Certain Conditions

Certain health conditions may require modifying exercises or avoiding certain movements altogether. 

For example, those with a herniated disc should absolutely exercise under the supervision of a  physical therapist to avoid exercises that increase radiating symptoms or weakness, and encourage proper healing of the disc area. Spinal manipulation may also not be recommended if you have osteoporosis or spinal cord issues. 

In addition, some nerve symptoms may indicate peripheral nerve injury, and some may indicate spinal cord compression.  It is important to work with a healthcare provider that can assess the potential need for a doctor’s referral related to an injury that may require immediate medical attention.

Take Control of Your Neck Pain Today: Consult with Primal Physical Therapy Now

Incorporating these simple yet effective exercises into your daily routine could be the turning point in your battle against neck pain. However, remember that every individual’s situation is unique. Thus, consulting with experts like the team at Primal Physical Therapy can truly optimize your recovery journey and help you manage your neck pain effectively. 

Reach out to Primal Physical Therapy to start a physical therapy program today.

Dr. JJ Thomas, DPT, MPT, CMTPT

JJ Thomas is the owner and founder of Primal Physical Therapy, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. She is an instructor for Evidence in Motion, and lectures and speaks nationally on the topics of Dry Needling, Functional Movement Analysis, and Functional Anatomy. She has been published in IJSPT for her contribution to a commentary on dry needling and consults as a content expert for organizations such as the APTA and FSBPT. In this role, she played a large part in the addition of a CPT code for dry needling through the AMA and was on the task force that helped identify competency standards for dry needling education nationally. JJ works with US Field Hockey teams, and individuals from US Lacrosse, US Polo, USA Track and Field, NFL, NBA, PLL, MLB, and more.
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