Stretches for Neck Tension
These are taken from a website on migraines and were designed by an occupational therapist. For those working on computers all day, take a break and do these 2-3 times a day.
Warm-up. Do these slowly and gently. NEVER push your neck beyond its limits or jerk it around, especially if you’ve had a whiplash injury. For some people, looking up can cause dizziness or even fainting, so take that especially slowly and carefully.
Neck stretches are to be gently performed. At this point in the routine, our muscles should be warmed up and ready to be stretched. This is where the magic happens in relieving the built-up tension that might be causing pain or migraines. The stretches should be performed gently, so as not to cause pain or discomfort, and should not feel forced. (Are you getting that idea yet?)
Ear-to-shoulder stretch: 3 sets of 5-second holds on each side. If you don’t feel enough stretch, gently place your hand on head to give slight pressure on your head to increase the stretch. I’ll often reach my other arm up over my head, hook my middle finger into my ear and just let the weight of that arm stretch my neck.
Chin-to-armpit stretch: 3 sets of 5-second holds on each side. Bring ear to shoulder and then turn down towards armpit. If you don’t feel enough stretch, gently place your hand on head to give slight pressure on your head to increase the stretch. Go easy!
Wall chest stretch: 3 sets of 20-second hold on each side. Standing parallel to the wall, bring the arm against the wall behind you with the palm flat on the wall. Use your other hand that is in front of your body to gently push away from the wall to stretch the chest muscles. You can see it here.
Shoulder blade squeeze with a hold: 3 sets of 10 squeezes with a 3 second hold. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold.
Isometric neck extension: 3 sets of 5 with a 3 second hold. Bring hands behind your head. Extend your neck into your hands while simultaneously pushing gently into your head to create resistance.
Neck extension: 3 sets of 10 gentle neck extensions. Here’s one way to do them, but you can do these by just looking up toward the ceiling. Note: if you have arthritis in your neck, be very careful here! You may want to avoid them altogether, especially if you get dizzy or feel any sharp pain. These can actually cause you to black out if you have serious neck problems.
Here are some other stretches that are helpful, too:
Working the fascia in your neck: Tom Meyers, the guy I studied with in Maine last fall, shows you how to work your own neck fascia here, including those evil scalenes that tighten up with computer work. He does this work quickly to get it all on one take, but you’ll want to do these exercises slooooowly and relax into the work.
Door frame stretch: Hold arms out to side with elbows bent into a 90 degree angle and hands and forearms leaning into door frame to stretch the chest. See what I’m talking about here.
Off-the-bed stretch: Lie down on bed face up with your head at the edge of the bed. Keep inching up toward the edge of the bed so that more of your head hangs down off the edge. When you get to a place that just feels good, just let your head hang there for awhile. But again, be careful here, too. This can cause dizziness.
Rolled-up towel stretch with breathing and meditation. Lie flat face up with a rolled up towel under your neck for 10-20 minutes and just breathe deeply. Shallow breathing, which is what we usually do, will not work and often makes things worse. So make sure you’re deep breathing or practicing the 4-7-8 breathing technique. You’ll be surprised by what just this can do. If your lower back hurts while lying flat, put a pillow or two under your knees. A little soft music and/or a guided meditation works wonders for me when I’m starting to get stressed, for it forces me to realize that I’m holding my body in various patterns of tension that are causing me pain—something I was oblivious to most of my life. Practicing this regularly has enabled me to be able to identify where I’m holding various muscles and voluntarily release them. It took a lot of time and practice for me to be able to do this, which it seems like it shouldn’t have, but I spent a lifetime literally trying to hold everything together, it seems, so no wonder it took me so long to be aware of and undo this. I’m still working on it, in fact. And I know I’m not alone in this. So make a 15-20 minute date with yourself to tune in to what’s happening with your body and soul. I’m now convinced that this practice is one of the best things we can do to keep us healthy. Now, instead of seeing it as one more thing I have to do (which, I confess, I did), I look forward to this time. And I pay for it when I don’t with pain.
Yoga is also great. I’ve not done serious yoga practices, but through breathing and meditation, I’ve come to know when and where my body needs stretched and just put myself in certain yoga poses and breathe into them, and this helps, especially with morning stiffness. Here’s a good video for beginners. Similarly, here’s a practice designed to stretch all of your fascia. Good luck with these. Do what you can slowly on your own time.
Some Other Things:
I’ve also been helped in my self-care by some other devices: a squash or lacrosse ball and the SacroWedgy. (I do not get paid by any of these folks to hawk their wares.)
A squash or lacrosse ball is great to use because they’re both made of hard rubber with a little less give than a tennis ball. Just put the ball where it hurts and then put your weight on it, as much as you can stand until it releases. Then you can put a little more weight on it. For your pectoralis minors (at front of shoulder), just put the ball there and lean into a door frame on the ball. Here are a couple videos demonstrating the technique. You can roll around on it a bit (not much or you’ll damage the fascia, and there’s a major artery going through there, so be careful). The point is to put pressure on the tendon attachments to the bones so that they loosen up, and then you can stretch the muscle that’s been stuck in contraction. This can work wonders to release pain, though it can hurt like the dickens (what is a dickens, anyway?) when you first put weight on it. Go slowly, relax and breathe into it. Then enjoy a good stretch of what releases.
I lie on the Sacro Wedgy while I listen to or do my own breathing meditations for 20 minutes (two birds, one stone). Make sure that you have a rolled up towel under your head when you use this!!! If you have SI joint or problems with your sacrum, start with just a few minutes and work up to 20 minutes on the SacroWedgy. This is a bit costly, so if you don’t want to lay out $35-$40 for it, you can achieve much the same thing by folding a hand towel to fit the size of your sacrum, placing it under your sacrum, and lying on it. Again, be sure to have a rolled up towel under your neck. You don’t need to buy their little pillow; just make sure that the towel you roll up suspends your skull off the surface you’re lying on.
And don’t forget to get out in the sunshine for your vitamin D and soak in 4-5 c. of Epsom salts in a warm bath for 20 minutes once or twice a week for the magnesium that our muscles need to function optimally.
Doing these things will go a long way toward self care until such time when you can get a massage again without worry.
Teresa Eisenlohr is a licensed massage therapist who's also an ordained Presbyterian pastor with a Ph.D. in Christian theology. Needless to say, it's been a weird and interesting healing journey.