Getting relief for your tight, sore neck starts here.
A stiff neck can be painful, frustrating, and sometimes mysterious. That's because seemingly harmless everyday tasks, from cooking dinner to texting to washing dishes, can all contribute to pain and stiffness when you do them often enough.
What's more, one of the most common causes of neck pain and discomfort is doing nothing at all, says Natasha Freutel, a licensed occupational therapist based in Santa Barbara, California. And we're all guilty of doing more of that in the last year.
If you’ve noticed a spike in neck pain and stiffness, here are three common habits that might be responsible—plus how to loosen up and get some relief.
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Habit #1: You Settle into a Slouch When You Sit
Spending a lot of time in a seated position can cause neck pain and stiffness in many people, but it's not simply because your rear is in a chair. The main reason is that when we sit for extended periods of time, our posture tends to suffer, says Ellen Z. Anderson, P.T., Ph.D., associate professor in the department of rehabilitation and movement sciences at Rutgers School of Health Professions.
Most people sit with their head and neck too far forward, causing the shoulders and upper back to round or hunch. In this position, "muscles in the upper back and neck get longer while muscles in the front of the shoulders get shorter, which contributes to stiffness," Anderson explains.
Normal musculoskeletal changes that happen with age—like weakening muscles in the core and upper back—can also contribute to poor posture, and vice versa, Freutel adds.
Her suggestion: Try to avoid sitting for longer than one to two hours at a time. "The muscles are more likely to stiffen up if you're not moving," she says. You don't have to do anything strenuous, just stand up and do a lap around the room or house. Your neck will appreciate the chance to relax and reset.
Even better, combine your sitting breaks with the simple neck stretches below.
Habit #2: You (Unintentionally) Overwork Your Upper-Body Muscles
Overuse of the muscles in the shoulders and neck is another common cause of tightness and soreness, Freutel says. This can happen from a onetime blunder, like lifting a heavy grocery bag improperly (always lift with your legs!). But more often, mystery neck pain stems from repetitive motions or positions that fatigue the muscles in your upper body—standing over the counter cooking, washing dishes at the sink, or even sleeping in the wrong position.
Your workout is another consideration. While regular exercise is great for keeping muscles and joints healthy, using improper form or lifting heavy weights before you’re ready can both contribute to neck pain and stiffness. That’s why working with a trainer or physical therapist can be so helpful, especially if you’re new to exercise or coming back after a long break.
Habit #3: You Get All Your News from Your Smartphone or Tablet
It’s also where you check email, scroll through family photos, and do the daily crossword, which means you’re likely looking down for multiple hours per day.
Why that's a problem: Your neck muscles are designed to hold the weight of your head when it's in a neutral position-meaning your ears are lined up with your shoulders and your shoulder blades are pulled down and back. As soon as your head tilts forward and down, the weight your neck has to carry increases.
How much? A mere 15-degree angle increases the force on the cervical spine to about 27 pounds, according to a study published in the journal Surgical Technology International. At 60 degrees—when your chin is nearly to your chest—it’s 60 pounds. That’s about the equivalent of carrying a 7-year-old around your neck for a few hours each day.
Giving up devices isn't realistic, especially if you've rely on them to communicate with family and friends, Anderson says. But you can relieve some of the pressure on your neck by looking down at devices with your eyes, not bending your neck, or holding or propping devices up at eye level when possible.
3 Neck Stretches Your Body Needs
The first step to getting relief is identifying what might be causing your neck pain. If any of the lifestyle habits above sound familiar, working on improving your posture, adjusting your sleep position, and/or checking your exercise form can certainly help prevent future problems.
Additionally, Anderson suggests adding a few simple neck stretches to your daily routine. "Regular stretching can go a long way in easing and preventing stiffness," she says.
Here are three stretches she recommends doing at least once per day. If at any point you feel numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, or anywhere else, stop the stretch immediately, Anderson says. This can be a sign of pressure on the nerves that come off the spinal cord. If it happens more than once, mention it to your physical therapist or physician. He or she can help pinpoint the cause and advise accordingly.
Neck Stretch #1: Chin Tuck
"Think of the curve in the back of the neck," Anderson says. "With this stretch, you're trying to flatten it a bit to be able to stretch those muscles out."
While sitting tall in a chair (or standing), pull your chin straight back as if you're trying to create a double chin. Hold this retracted position for 3 to 4 deep breaths and release, allowing your chin to move forward slightly. Esa es 1 repetición. Haga de 3 a 5 repeticiones en total.
Want more of a stretch? After pulling your chin in, you can then bring it down closer to your chest; just be sure to maintain the "pulled-in" position the entire time.
Neck Stretch #2: Chin to Collarbone
While sitting tall in a chair (or standing), turn your head slightly to bring your chin down as close to one side of your collarbone as possible. Relax your shoulders-the less tension the better. If you want, you can place your fingers on the top of your head and gently push to enhance the stretch, which you'll feel in your neck and the top of your opposite shoulder.
Hold for 3 deep breaths and release. Repeat on the opposite side to complete 1 rep. Do 3 to 5 reps total.
Love these stretches and want more? Take a Gentle Stretch (Express) class online with SilverSneakers LIVE!. View the schedule and RSVP here.
Neck Stretch #3: Chair Stretch
This chair move helps open up your upper body and puts your neck into a more neutral position, Anderson says.
Sit tall in a chair with a backrest that hits near your shoulder blades, feet flat on the floor. Press your upper back into the chair, arching your back so that your shoulders drop down and back. You can place your hands in your lap or hold onto the seat of the chair, hands by your hips, and push down slightly to intensify the stretch. In this position, retract your chin like you're trying to create a double chin. Hold for 3 to 4 deep breaths and release. Esa es 1 repetición. Haga de 3 a 5 repeticiones en total.
Don't have a chair with a high back? You can still perform this movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together, allowing your chest to open up as you arch your back.
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