Photo credit: Daniel Rönnbäck, Keramas Beach, Bali
Neck pain can drain your energy, cause tension headaches and leave you vulnerable to muscle tweaks.
Fortunately, yoga—along with a few other simple techniques—can be really effective at relieving the pain. Similar to my approach for alleviating lower back pain, there are three parts to this: releasing tension, restoring range of motion and strengthening stabilising muscles.
First, let's take a look at the causes of neck pain.
How does posture affect your neck?
Poor posture is one of the primary causes of neck pain. If you spend any time at a desk, in front of a screen or swiping on your smartphone, it’s almost impossible not to lapse into the head forward, rounded shoulders position—and this can set off a cascade of problems.
How your sport exacerbates the problem
Add to this the additional stress you place on your body during training. Cycling exacerbates the issues of head forward posture, closing the chest and over-stretching the muscles in the upper back. Surfing is notoriously bad for neck and shoulder pain, caused by the physical demands of paddling in the prone posture. Lifting weights causes a significant amount of tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back. And many sports that involve running, aggravate neck and shoulder pain if athletes are tight in the upper body.
Over time, this is the common pattern that emerges
- The upper back muscles (upper trapezius) and the muscles in the side and back of your neck (levator scapulae, scalenes and sternocleidomastoid) tighten up.
- The joints in the back of the neck are compressed.
- The muscles in the mid-back that stabilise the shoulder blades (rhomboids and middle and lower trapezius) are over-stretched and become weak.
- The fronts of the shoulders and chest close up, becoming short and tight.
- The muscles in the front of your neck atrophy from lack of use.
Aside from neck and upper back pain, this can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, shooting pain in the neck and along the shoulder blades, as well as chronic lower back pain.
Correcting muscular imbalances
These are the areas we need to address:
- Release tension in the upper back and the back and sides of the neck.
- Open up the chest and the fronts of the shoulders.
- Increase range of motion in the neck, shoulders and thoracic spine (mid-back).
- Strengthen the mid-back—the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades—and the muscles in the front of the neck.
- Correct the alignment of the cervical spine/decompress the back of the neck.
Please note that these poses are not designed for managing whiplash or other acute neck injuries, nor are they meant to replace physical therapy. If you have any concerns, please check with your doctor before you try any of these poses. None of them should cause you pain.
Part One: ReleasE Tension
The two primary reasons that muscles get tight are from holding a shortened position for a long period of time without being released and from over-activity, again, without release.
Here are 6 stretches you can do anywhere—at your desk, in front of the TV or when you're travelling. If you practice them consistently, they will help to release tension, relieve pain and increase your range of motion in the neck, shoulders and upper back.
- Hold each of these stretches for 5-10 breaths, in and out through your nose.
- Be mindful and explore your specific areas of tightness and tenderness.
For the neck stretch, try a few different angles. Look straight ahead and hold the stretch there to stretch the side of your neck, then look up to stretch the front of the neck and look down to stretch towards the back of your neck.
Here are 8 relaxing poses you can do in the evening as a sequence, or just one or two at a time. The aim is profound relaxation—to allow the muscles in your neck, shoulders and upper back to soften and relax.
- Support yourself on as many cushions and pillows as you need to fully relax into the poses.
- Hold each pose for 2-3 minutes to begin with and increase this over time.
- As you inhale, breathe deep into your abdomen, inflating it like a balloon. And on every exhalation, let all the air out as slowly as you can. Imagine that your breath is dissolving away tension. Softening hard spots. Melting away pain.
- Consciously, relax the muscles in your jaw, neck, shoulders and upper back.
- Focus on your breath throughout and try not to be distracted.
Part Two: Loosen Up
I have put together a 5-video neck and shoulder mobility series to target pain and tightness in the area. You can find out more here: yogaforneckandshoulders
Part Three: Strengthen
The key areas you need to strengthen are the muscles that stabilise your shoulder blades, your core and the front of your neck.
An exercise you can do to strengthen the muscles in the front of your neck is a simple chin tuck. Standing, sitting or lying, relax your jaw and tuck your chin to your chest. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Repeat this 10 times. You can do it several times throughout the day.
Your COMPLETE PRESCRIPTION
- Every minute: check in with your posture.
- Every hour: take stretch breaks to encourage circulation in your neck and shoulders and avoid tightening up.
- Every day: practice 15 minutes of yoga flow to keep your body supple.
- Every week: practice relaxation poses for deep and long-lasting release.
Please let me know if you have any questions and if you have other neck and shoulder stretches you can share with us.