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How to Fix a Stiff Neck or Shoulders

When I injured my neck, I began searching for information and relief. I found these exercises to be a lifesaver.

Neck and shoulder pain can be caused by something as simple as sleeping the wrong way—or by something as serious as a herniated disk. The fact of the matter, though, is that one can be just as agonizing as the other! To be safe, always take things gently when trying to loosen and stretch the area. It's important to ensure you don't make any injuries worse.

Shoulder pain is often not really in the shoulder at all—it's what is called "referred pain" from the neck. So if your problem is shoulder pain, it's worth treating the neck as well, to see if it helps.

If you know the pain is the result of injury, you should start with an ice pack. The aim is to stop inflammation in its tracks; otherwise it will be even more painful tomorrow.

Once the injury has settled down, or if you know the pain is muscle spasm, then a heat pack will work better. However, heat will make inflammation worse—so if there's the slightest chance there's an underlying injury, don't risk it no matter how tempting that soothing heat may sound.

In an emergency, you can buy single-use ice or heat packs. Usually you twist them to break an inner capsule, and they turn cold or hot.

If you often get neck pain, it makes more sense to get yourself a pack you can use over and over again. Look for dual purpose therapy packs—the kind you can heat up in the microwave or chill in the freezer, depending on your need.

Gentle stretching will ease neck pain

Gentle stretching will ease neck pain

Stretching for Neck Pain

If the pain is severe, don't attempt any stretches for the first 24 hours. For moderate pain, it's good to do some gentle neck stretching straightaway.

Gentle Neck Stretches (Lying Down)

Lie down on the bed. Now slide the back of your head away from your shoulders - think about lengthening the back of your neck. Your head will tilt forward slightly and your chin will tuck into your neck. Pull your chin in as far as you can and press the back of your neck into the mattress for 10 seconds, then relax. Do 3 sets of 10.

You may want to be alone when you do this exercise - if you do it right, it will make you look like you have a really attractive double chin (if not several)!

Next, still lying on the bed, roll your head from side to side. Don't try to force it or control it, just let your head turn gently and rhythmically from one shoulder to the other. You could even play some music to keep time to! Keep this up as long as you can manage - you'll find your range gradually increases, the longer you keep rolling.

Gentle Neck Stretches (Standing Up)

If the lying stretch is easy, you can do the same "chin tuck" exercise sitting or standing in front of a mirror. Looking straight ahead, tuck your chin into your neck (there are those gorgeous double chins again) and push backwards, stretching the back of your neck. To make this stretch stronger, you can put both hands on your chin and push back. Don't drop your head - if you keep looking in the mirror, it helps you hold the right posture.

These exercises can be done several times a day, whenever you remember.

Advanced Neck Stretches

If (and only if!) you can do the basic exercises without exacerbating your pain, it's time to move on to more advanced versions.

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Please do not even attempt any of these if the basic exercises make your pain worse!

These are basically the same neck exercises you'll find at any fitness class - dropping your chin to your chest and turning it side to side - but there are important differences.

Forward tilt

Sit on a hard chair with your back straight. Tuck your chin in (as for the basic exercise above), then lower your head forward. Move your head only, don't drop your shoulders or round your back, and keep pulling your chin in. Now place your hands gently on the top of your head - don't press down, just let them rest there. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Do 3 sets of 10.

Side tilt

Do the same thing to the side. Hold the edge of the chair with your right hand, to prevent you lifting your right shoulder. Keeping your chin tucked in, lower your left ear to your left shoulder. Lift your left hand and rest it gently over your head, fingers touching your right ear. Don't press down, just feel the weight. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat the whole exercise on the other side.

Look over shoulder

The third exercise is simply to turn your head from side to side. Keep your your head upright, and turn to look as far as you can over each shoulder without forcing it.

You'll notice I don't suggest an exercise to tilt your head back. That's because tilting the head back can pinch the nerves at the back of the neck, so it's best avoided unless you have been given the all-clear to do so by a professional.