For a condition that’s incredibly common—up to 70 percent of Americans experience significant neck pain at some point—relatively few resources have been devoted to finding a cure. Recently, however, a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine brought good news: an effective way to find medication-free relief via six stretches that can easily be done throughout the day at home and in the office.
These exercises, tested by scientists in Minnesota, address the root cause of many neck problems—poor upper-body posture. “The head weighs 10 to 12 pounds,” says Jennifer L. Solomon, MD, a board-certified physiatrist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “If you hold it in an awkward position, such as jutting forward while you’re sitting in front of a computer, that puts excess stress on the muscles and soft tissue in the neck.”
The strain is often treated with chiropractic care or medication, but the Minnesota research showed that frequent neck and shoulder stretching can provide relief that’s almost as good or even better for people suffering from moderate discomfort. In the study, more than three quarters of participants who completed a 12-week exercise regimen experienced at least a 50 percent drop in pain; following up a year later, researchers found that 37 percent had a complete reduction in pain, compared with 27 percent of those who’d had chiropractic treatment and 17 percent of those who had been given over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs.
The exercises used in the study emphasize what’s known as neck retraction: Keep your head level and move it straight back (see first exercise, below left). This stretches muscles at the base of the skull and strengthens deep muscles in the front of your neck, ameliorating some of the damage caused by poor posture. “The exercises help the joints and muscles work in a coordinated manner,” says lead study author Gert Bronfort, DC, PhD, vice president of research at the Wolfe-Harris Center for Clinical Studies at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota.
If you’re experiencing neck strain or would like to prevent it, do the series six to eight times a day. (While that may sound like a lot, each session should take less than five -minutes—and will probably make you feel a little better right away.) Begin each stretch with your neck centered in a neutral position—not tilted forward, back or to the side—and keep your shoulder muscles relaxed. Hold the end position for each exercise for two or three seconds, making sure you inhale and then exhale.