At some point in your life, you’re likely to suffer from a stiff neck. Necks are high maintenance because they contain so many muscles and joints, have a large range of motion and contain the nerves that run between your brain and your arms, legs, and organs.
Whether you tweaked it by sleeping in a less-than-ideal position, or you spent too many hours hunched over your computer, or if it’s just the result of stress, “neck pain will usually resolve within a few days to a week,” says Armin Tehrany, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care. “If it’s getting worse or if you have weakness or tingling, pain, burning or numbness radiating down your arms, see a doctor.
In the meantime, these tips may provide some relief if you’ve got a stiff neck. No twinge? Save them for the next time you’re feeling achy:
1. Opt for heat. If your neck feels sore, tight or stiff, apply a heating pad for 10-15 minutes. “You want to use heat for sore muscles, especially in the morning because you’ve usually slept with your neck in the same position for eight hours,” says Tehrany. (If you’ve had the air conditioner running all night, heat can be especially helpful to your neck muscles the next morning.)
2. Set a timer. If you’re sitting all day at a desk or in front of a computer, Tehrany suggests taking hourly stretch breaks (and while you’re at it, walk around for five minutes too). Then stretch: Gently lower your ear to one shoulder for 15 to 30 seconds, and then repeat it and bring your chin to your chest, to the other side, and then to the back. Complete two to four circles in each direction.
3. Tighten your midsection. “A strong core is the best prevention for neck pain,” says Tehrany. Surprisingly, weak torso muscles contribute to that office slouch. When your chest caves in and your back rounds, your neck and head tilt back — putting extra strain on the muscles along your spine and over-stretching the muscles along the front of the neck. A simple plank is a good way to boost core strength without any fancy equipment.
4. Put your finger on it. A research review published in the journal PLoS One found that acupressure (massaging traditional acupuncture points) is helpful in treating chronic neck pain. Try these points to ease tension:
– Press the thumb of your right hand on the webbing between your left thumb and index finger and put your right index finger underneath to squeeze the muscles. You should feel an achy sensation. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.
– Next, place your fingers of both hands on either side of your spine at the base of your skull. Slide them out to the side about an inch (you should feel them fall into a trough as you drop off the muscle). Press deeply here and hold for 30 seconds.
You can do these neck stretches discreetly at your desk!
5. Do a posture scan. When you’re standing upright, you should be able to draw a straight line from your ear down through your shoulder, hip, and ankle. You may need to roll your shoulders back and down, draw your navel in toward your spine, tighten your glutes, and position your head back to get into the proper position. However, neck pain can be caused by muscle imbalances in the lower body too. A qualified personal trainer or physical therapist can check your posture to identify potential issues.
6. Go hands-free already. It’s 2016. There’s no reason to still be cradling your phone between your ear and shoulder, which can put a serious kink in your neck. Invest in a headset if you use a landline phone or pick up some earphones with a microphone for your cell. Unless you want to be know as the person who uses speakerphone at the office (hint: you don’t).
7. Get out the foam roller. When you have a stiff neck, you’ll often also feel tightness in your upper and middle back. Try this move daily to counteract slouching and improve mobility in your thoracic spine (the area between your neck and low back). Place a foam roller on the floor and sit with knees bent and hands lightly against the sides of your head, elbows forward. Lie back onto the roller so it’s centered
across the bottom of your shoulder blades. Stay here and breathe deeply for 60-90 seconds as you slowly extend over the roller. Next, lift your hips and scan for tender spots, and repeat, breathing into the discomfort.
8. Take it easy in yoga. All that stretching is great for your body and mind, but some poses require you to turn your neck or lift your head to extreme degrees, which can trigger pain and even (in rare cases) increase your risk of stroke. Always wait until you’re adequately warmed up before moving into any extreme ranges of motion. If a pose hurts or feels challenging for your neck, ease off. Nobody will kick you out of class if you don’t look up at the ceiling in trikonasana (or triangle pose, see the neck angle). See yoga pose above.
9. Use your noggin. Sometimes a massage is worth it: A study in the Clinical Journal of Pain showed that almost 80 percent of people with chronic neck pain who tried craniosacral therapy, a type of manual therapy that focuses primarily on the head and spine, saw a 50 percent reduction in neck pain after 8 weeks.
Maybe it’s time to baby your neck a little. How often do you get a stiff neck?