FitnessYoga & Stretching

15 Stretches to Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain

Pain in the body isn’t something anyone wants to deal with, and when it comes to neck, shoulder and upper back pain, many people suffer. Whether you are stuck in the car for long periods of time, work at a desk all day, or sleep in the wrong position, there are many activities that affect the way your body feels.

Most people, when they experience pain the body, pop a pill like ibuprofen. However, this is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. What if I told you that relieving neck and shoulder pain isn’t as hard as it may seem – even naturally at that.

Common Causes of A Stiff Neck and Tight Shoulders

A stiff neck is often caused by weak neck muscles, and is characterized by soreness and difficulty moving the neck, especially when trying to turn the head to the side.

Causes of a stiff neck include (1):
– Excessive stress
– Poor posture
– Repeatedly turning the head from side to side
– Sports injuries
– Sleeping with the neck in an awkward position
– Muscle sprain or strain
– Holding the neck in an abnormal position for a long period
– Infection
– Cervical spine disorders

According to Dr. Andrew Bang, a chiropractor at the Cleveland Clinic, “[Once your neck muscles get weak], and you go to turn and instead of a joint nicely moving, it’s now out of place. Then it catches on something and pulls a muscle or hits the nerve irregularly, and then you’ll have instant pain and your body will, we call it, “protective spasm.” It doesn’t want you to get hurt more, so it will (crunching noise), and now you’re like ‘Oh, I can’t even move.” and you’re wondering what you did (2).”

A stiff neck can also be caused by tight shoulders or upper back pain, which are often caused by poor posture. Fortunately, with the right stretches, care, and strengthening exercises, your neck, shoulder and upper back pain will eventually subside.

1. Chin Tucks

This exercise improves flexibility of the neck and reduces pressure on the spinal nerves, and helps get rid of tension headaches caused by tight sub-occipital muscles.

1. Sit up straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
2. Place your index finger on the middle of your chin, look forward, and gently press backward.
3. Tuck in your chin, bringing it backward toward your spine. Stop when you feel a stretch – without pain – along the back of your neck.
4. Hold for 15-20 seconds, relax, and repeat three times.

2. Cow-Face Pose

Helps open up tight shoulders, allowing for full muscle release.

1. From all fours, cross your right knee over the left, stacking one on top of the other. Sit down between your legs, so that your buttocks is on the floor. You can rest on a block or blanket if your hips are too tight.
2. Inhale, and reach your right arm out to the side, then rotate the arm inward so that the thumb faces the ground. Exhale your arm behind your back, bend the elbow, and work your hand up towards your neck. Roll your right shoulder back and down.
3. Inhale, and reach your left arm forward, palm facing up, and draw your arm towards the sky. Exhale, and bend your elbow. Reach to grasp your finger of your opposite hand. You can use a strap or towel if your fingers do not yet clasp.
4. Hold for 20-30 seconds, and repeat on the opposite side. Do 3 reps for each arm.

3. Cross-Body Arm Stretch

This exercise helps to increase range of motion and decreases stiffness and pain.

1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and bring one of your arms across your body at chest-level.
2. Lock that arm in place and really stretch it by using your other arm to do so.
3. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat on the opposite arm.
4. Aim for 5-10 repetitions on each arm.

4. Straight Arm Wall Stretch

This stretch is good for lengthening and stretching muscles in the front of the shoulder (like the pec muscles), and rotator cuff area. It will help with good posture, and thus, less strain on the shoulders and neck.

1. Find a wall and flatten your arm all the way against the wall, with the arm parallel to the ground, and palm facing the wall.
2. Keep your shoulder pressed to the wall, and then slowly move your chest away from the wall so that your shoulders are perpendicular to the arm.
3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and repeat on the other side. You can do different angles with each arm as demonstrated in the video above.

5. Thread The Needle

If you have stiffness and pain in your back, shoulders, or neck this pose can provide immediate relief. It releases the tension that is held in the upper back and between the shoulder blades.

1. Start on your hands and knees, and slide the right hand between the left hand and left knee.
2. Slide the arm all the way out to the left so that the right shoulder and side of the head rest comfortably on the floor.
3. Inhale and reach the left hand up towards the ceiling. Find the place where you feel the deepest stretch, and then stay there and reach through the fingers.
4. Breathe and hold for 3-6 breaths, then repeat on the other side. Repeat on each side 3 times.

6. Reverse Prayer Pose

This is a great stretch for the upper back, and for opening up the chest. It is especially good for people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist pain. The shoulder movement helps loosen any tight shoulder muscles and relaxes your shoulder blades, therefore causing less shoulder and neck pain.

1. Start in a seated or standing position, spine long. Inhale, and on your exhale, bring your arms behind you, fingers pointing towards the ground, palms lightly together.
2. Inhale, and rotate your arms so that your fingers now point towards you, and then to the sky. Your hands may come apart here, but that’s okay.
3. Exhale, and press your pinkie fingers into your back as you press your palms together. Breathe here for 5-6 deep breaths, and then come out gently. Repeat 3-4 times.

7. Side Neck Stretch

This stretch targets the side of your neck.

1. Start with your shoulders relaxed, and gently tilt your head towards your right shoulder.
2. Assist your stretch with a gentle pull on the side of the head. Hold for 20-30 seconds, and release.
3. Repeat on the other side, and do a total of 3 repetitions on each side.

8. Cat And Cow Pose

This pose develops flexibility in the entire spine. It stretches and lengthens the back torso and the neck, and can open and create space throughout the entire neck.

1. Start with your hands and knees on the floor, palms directly under the shoulder rand knees directly below the hips.
2. Breathe in and pull your abdominal muscles in as you arch your back up like a stretching cat. Let your head and tailbone drop down toward the floor.
3. Return to the initial position, and then extend the upper part of the spine upwards, supporting it with your abdominal muscles and not letting your neck sink into your shoulders, or your shoulders crunch up into your neck. Make sure your neck is a long extension of your spine, and don’t let the head fall back.
4. Return to starting position and repeat 5 times.

9. Stretch For Tight Painful Trapezius Muscles

This exercise fatigues the trapezius muscles so that you can trick the brain into relaxing it.

1. In a relaxed, standing position, standing tall, choose whatever side is hurting you (say the right side) and lift your right shoulder blade up. Pull it backwards.
2. Lean your head back, and take the right ear and bring it over to the right shoulder.
3. Look up away from the right shoulder, and feel the trapezius muscle contract. Hold for 30 seconds and relax.
4. You can repeat several times a day.

10. Double Anterior Shoulder Stretch

A great exercise to release tight shoulder joints, and to release pressure around the area of the shoulder that meets the neck.

1. Stand straight and clasp your hands behind your lower back.
2. Keeping your arms extended, slowly raise them behind you until you feel a nice stretch through the front of each shoulder and across your chest. Hold for 30 seconds.
3. You can flip your hands so that the palms face outward – this will give you a deeper stretch, but it requires a lot of flexibility.
4. Avoid bending forward, and don’t force the stretch – you should not feel any pain.
5. Repeat 3 times.

11. Neck Ball Squeeze and Roll

A good stretch to loosen up and stretch out tight muscles in the upper back and neck area.

Check out the video above for the exercise at 2:00 to see how to perform this exercise.

12. Chest Foam Rolling

Often our shoulder and neck pain is caused by a tight chest from rounding forward. Foam rolling is hugely beneficial for relaxing tight chest muscles.

1. Lie on your stomach adjacent or parallel to the foam roller. Reach your arm out to the side with your palm facing down.
2. Place the foam roller on the inside of the armpit and shoulder, then slowly roll outward.
3. Stop at the first tender area and hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly move on to the next tender area.
4. You can roll the remainder of the chest, or switch to the other armpit side if you don’t want to roll across the whole chest area.

13. Doorway Stretch

The perfect stretch for opening up the chest to prevent slouching, and therefore, neck and shoulder strain.

1. Stand inside a doorway and bend your right arm at a 90 degree angle, and place your forearm against the doorframe.
2. Position the bent elbow at about shoulder height. Alternatively, you can just grab the doorframe with your hand as shown in the picture above.
3. Rotate your chest to the left until you feel a nice stretch in the chest and front shoulder.
4. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat with the opposite arm.

14. Cervical Rotation

This exercise can help maintain or increase the flexibility of your neck.

1. Sit in a chair in an upright position with your back straight.
2. Gently turn your head to look as far as possible over one shoulder. Hold for 2-3 seconds and release back to the starting position.
3. Repeat the exercise to the opposite side. Try not to allow the head to tilt as you turn it.

15. Upper Trapezius Release Exercise

This exercise will help muscle fatigue and prevent excessive contracture and spasm.

1. Place yours arms at your sides with palms facing forward and relax everything else.
2. Bring your shoulders up to your ears, and squeeze up high. It might hurt a little bit, but hold for 3-4 seconds and then relax.
3. Repeat 10-12 times, and then shake your shoulders out afterwards.

back muscles illustrating common problem areas and trigger point pain referral areas with text - 15 stretches to relieve a stiff neck, tight shoulders, and upper back pain

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