Juliette Kando is a dancer, choreologist, author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.
To relieve pain and stiffness in the neck, we follow the upward progression in body awareness versus gravity. I have written other articles in which I began at the feet—which is the base or foundation of the whole body—and then we worked our way up to the ankles, knees, pelvis, waist, torso, etc. In this article, regarding the neck, we begin by exploring the base of the neck which is the shoulder area, to create a strong foundation that supports the neck and head. As shown in the following table of contents we first discuss what causes neck pain in the first place.
- What Causes Neck Pain?
- Shoulder Muscles & Shoulder Alignment
- Arm Swings
- Neck Alignment for Good Posture
- Over Curvature of the Neck - Do You Have a Dowagers Hump?
- Where Your Neck Should Be
- Yes, No, and Maybe
- How do you Sleep?
- Advanced Neck Lengthener
- No More Pain
- Ultimate Solution: A Gravity Inversion Table
- Checklist to Relieve Neck Pain
1. What Causes Neck Pain?
Apart from stress, the main cause of neck pain is poor posture. You can loosen a stiff neck, frozen shoulders, or upper back, and even get rid of headaches and migraines by being well aware of your posture, especially your neck. There is no such thing as a short neck. We all possess seven cervical vertebrae. A short neck is merely curved too deeply. The neck supports the head, so it is obvious that if the head is carried too far in front of the body instead of directly above the spine, where it belongs, the muscles at the back of the neck are doing unnecessary overtime. Permanently tense and raised shoulders, poor sleeping habits, stress, or cold drafts also contribute to neck pain. The overload in muscle tension just to hold your head up, but in the wrong way, can eventually escalate into chronic headaches and migraines. Oh dear, what to do, what to do?
First, let us look at the shoulder area to create a strong base needed to help the neck support the head.
2. Shoulder Muscles
The main muscles that work the shoulders are the trapezius, the pectoralis (pecs) and the latissimus dorsi (lats) muscles; their job is to move the arm. Muscles work in a chain reaction fashion. When the arm rotates inward, it takes the shoulder with it. As this happens, the muscles at the front of the shoulder tighten while the muscles of the upper back become overstretched and weak. This results in:
- kyphosis with forward head posture
- tight muscles in the front of the shoulder
- weak muscles in the upper back
Anyone who works for long hours at a desk is prone to this imbalance.
Correct Position of the Shoulder Joint
While the pecs and the lats are primarily movers of the arm, the rhomboids at the back provide stability to the shoulder joint. As the pecs and lats work to rotate the arm inward the rhomboids in the upper back become weak. This causes the shoulder joint to go too far forward, out of its neutral alignment, beyond its range of safety. This can be avoided by strengthening the upper back, using the rhomboids. Get off your chair for a minute and do the following shoulder alignment move to feel the rhomboid muscles putting your shoulders back into their correct place.
- Stand up with the arms hanging loosely by your sides, like the sleeves of an empty coat.
- Rotate the wrists outward as far as possible.
- Release the rotation in the lower arm (turn your palms in towards your thighs from the elbow) BUT...
- Keep the shoulders and upper arm in the same place as in 2. above.
You should feel a widening and flattening of the area immediately in front of your shoulder, allowing the shoulder joint to be placed at the side of your body rather than in front of it. That is where your shoulder likes to live most comfortably.
Relax the Shoulders
Raised shoulders cause the curve in the back of the neck to be too deep. As you can see from the red line of gravity, the head is carried too far in front of the body. This puts unnecessary strain on the muscles of the neck. A shortened neck often causes headaches and migraines. A double chin also often appears when the head is not carried above the spine. Firstly loosen the shoulders with the "Arm-swings and Circles" moves below, then proceed to the neck exercises in the following section.
3. Arm Swings
- Stand in a stable lunge position, the left foot in front and the right foot behind with the front leg bent and both heels on the floor.
- Swing the right arm up as far as you can until you feel the limit in the shoulder joint.
- Swing the arm down and back, again as far as you can feel it stop in its joint.
Breathe in on the uplift and out on the down swing. Use momentum rather than force, allow the arm to drop as it goes down. Do about eight or more swings while increasing speed and momentum until you are sure that all the little crackly noises (stiffness) have gone from your shoulder joint.
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Reverse the position of the feet and repeat with the left arm.
Full Arm Circles
Stand in the same position as in the previous sequence and now make continuous backward circles with your arm. Again, breathing in as you go up and breathing out as you go down. Begin slowly and increase the speed of the movement until your arm wants to circle quite fast to throw off all the tension; until you feel a tingling in your fingertips. If you look at your hand, it is quite red, full of blood. When you finish, hold the arm above the head and shake the hand to allow all the blood to flow back down again.
Change the position of your feet and repeat on the other side.
Note: Welcome any clicking or crunching noises in your shoulder as long as it doesn't hurt. All the above moves are oiling your rusty joints. After a few repetitions, those noises soon vanish.
Once the shoulders are nicely loose and relaxed, proceed with neck alignment.
4. Neck Alignment for Good Posture
5. Over Curvature of the Neck
Get the photo album and find a picture of yourself in your profile. Sorry, but if you carry your head as shown in the first picture above, you are in real trouble. When the neck is over-curved, the head is not aligned above the spine but is wrongly carried in front of the body. That takes a lot of unnecessary effort from the neck and shoulder muscles. Those muscles turn into spasms that cause chronic neck pain and shoulder tension, headaches, migraine, and even a Dowagers Hump. Help!
Do You have a Dowagers Hump?
If your neck looks like the first picture above, then it looks like you have a Dowagers Hump. No worries, it can get better with the hints and exercises, and videos given in this article.
In the beginning, before your neck is properly aligned and strong enough, be safe rather than sorry. When in pain, I recommend using a neck traction device for about 10 minutes a day to support and stretch the neck in an upward direction. I used such a device for many years to prevent the onset of a Dowagers hump and to help correct alignment. It supports the neck and relieves tension by elevating the whole skull, giving more room for nerves that may get pinched from an over curvature in the neck.
For Those Who Don't Like to Look Up
When a forward-headed person suddenly looks up, thereby increasing the over-curvature of the cervical vertebrae, even more, it hurts. They begin to look like the guy on the right in the above picture. Worse than being unsightly, a partly self-strangulated neck cuts off regular blood supply to the brain and airflow to the lungs. Finding it difficult to look up also affects one's mood, morale, and attitude. Someone who can only look down tends to be more negative.
Take a break. My next video gets you gently moving your neck through all positions in movement notation also called choreology. What's that? Movement notation is the writing of movement. If you want to know the full story, there is a link at the bottom.
In my next video, it helps to clearly, simply, and efficiently describe all 19 movements of the neck that can be written down. It helps to move the neck as shown whyle watching.
Cure Stiff Neck with Movement Notation
6. Where Your Neck Should Be
Anatomically, the skull is supported by the Atlas (the top cervical vertebra) centrally somewhere between the ears, in line with the central line of gravity. Then, when you look up, keep your neck long as shown above. Doesn't that look much better? Slowly do the following "yes, "no" and "maybe" exercise to achieve this.
7. Yes, No, and Maybe
These moves allow the neck to move in the three planes of motion, round the sagittal, transverse, and frontal axes which I prefer to call 'yes', 'no', and 'maybe'.
Caution before attempting neck exercises, you must establish the severity of your pain by consulting a physician or movement therapist.
- In the downward movement of the "yes" sequence aim to touch your breastbone with your chin. If the back of your neck is completely free of tension your chin should touch your breastbone when you look down - with your mouth closed (don't cheat!).
- On the upward movement of the "yes" sequence keep the back of your neck long as explained earlier.
Slowly repeat 1. and 2. for as long as the little noises inside your neck disappear.
Caution if you suffer from a posterior disc bulge avoid going too far down on this move as it would only increase the damage.
On the "No" sequence, keep the head centered above the spine (between your shoulders. Try to see as far back behind you as you can on each lateral rotation but don't lift up your nose. Slowly repeat looking to the left and right until all the little noises inside your neck disappear.
On the "Maybe" sequence, drop your ear down towards the shoulder while keeping your nose facing the front.
Gently repeat each move eight times or more until all the little crunching noises in your neck have stopped.
Slowly roll the head around clockwise to see how much of your entire periphery you can see. Or, pretend a butterfly is flying around your head and try to follow it with your eyes. After about the third circle, you will notice that you can see a little further. There may still be some little noises going on in your neck. They will eventually disappear. When you've done about four or five rolls, repeat them anti-clockwise. For best results, head rolls may be done in a warm bath under water where your head is virtually weightless.
Forward Head Posture Video
Bookmark the next video by chiropractor Dr. Oliver, to practice how to correct forward head posture on a daily basis. His explanations are clear and simple. I offer one little addition to the advice given in the video: In the beginning, when Dr.Oliver demonstrates the chin tuck, his neck is rather over-curved. I therefore recommend doing the same chin tuck while at the same time lifting the head upwards as if being pulled up by a high ponytail (not looking upwards but pulling the whole head in an upward direction during the chin tuck). Other than that, follow the video to the end to really feel which muscles need to be trained for lasting improvement.
8. How Do You Sleep?
Certain sleeping conditions can give you a stiff neck. Make sure you don’t sleep in a cold draft as this will cause your neck muscles to contract during sleep. Avoid pillows that take the neck out of its neutral alignment. For example, if you are on your right side and the pillow is too large, the neck is vulnerable to being pushed too far towards the left shoulder. Then you might wake up with a stiff neck. Your pillow should be firm and no thicker than the space needed for your head to lie flat on its ear without curving up the other side of the neck.
To train yourself for a better sleeping position you may first want to learn how to meditate in a horizontal position on the floor. Lie on the floor (not on a bed) on your back and simply allow gravity to straighten you out while you relax. Close your eyes and meditate as shown in the illustration below.
9. Advanced Neck Lengthener
My next video is, as it says in the introduction, only for people with good necks who want their necks to stay that way well into old age.
Huh, sorry but what's a "good neck"?
A good neck allows the body to lie comfortably supine on the floor (on your back) without a pillow.
The HeadWalk by Juliette Kando
10. No More Pain
In most cases of chronic pain, the pain is self-induced from stress, anxiety, or aggravation, plus poor posture and movement habits. By slightly modifying your daily movement habits and patterns and being aware of the difference between "good movements" and damaging ones, you are on the road to healing yourself. Once your body can, as a habit, correct itself on an ongoing basis, there is no longer the need to spend extra time "exercising" as such, unless in an emergency, like spending time with anyone who is a pain in the neck!
How Are You?
Voting Results Commentary
The above survey shows that 60% of the population have a chronic stiff neck (over-curvature) while only 1% never have any neck trouble at all. Help! What must we do? Well, here is a quick fix I used recently after a screaming match with a cowboy builder who was a real pain in the neck.
Cure Stiff Neck or Shoulder in 3 Minutes a Day
11. Ultimate Solution: A Gravity Inversion Table
Ask the question: "What really causes so much pain from over-curvature, compression, and tightness of the spine and neck? Gravity! So the final tip I have up my sleeve to relieve neck pain is to use gravity to the body's advantage rather than its detriment. This can be achieved on a gravity inversion table which provides an easy and most pleasant way to experience passive, gentle anti-gravity traction as shown in the next video.
Hanging Upside Down to Lengthen the Neck
12. Checklist to Relieve Neck Pain
Just remember this checklist on how to relieve neck pain and stiffness. Then your pain will soon ease away.
- Re-align your shoulders so they are at the side of your body and not in front.
- Retract the head so it sits above the spine (between the shoulders) and not in front of it.
- Keep the chin down.
- Perform the “yes, no, and maybe” exercise at least once a day or whenever you feel stiff in the neck.
- Perform the slow head rolls at least once a day or whenever you feel stiff in the neck. Don’t wait until your neck hurts so much you don’t want to move it.
- Check your sleeping habits and use of pillows as described above.
- Buy a gravity inversion table as shown in the video to straighten you out. No more osteopath bills, no more pain.
- Quick fix? Follow Layla's video
The exercises and tips given above will help you attain a level of physical consciousness and awareness to eliminate the stiffness and pain in your neck or shoulder forever. For more useful insights, questions, tips, and solutions from live case studies similar to yours, please follow the comment thread below.
Follow the exercises and videos in this article. To maintain the improved condition of your neck, bookmark the exercises and videos that work for you and do them on a regular basis before the pain returns.
Extra Help—Correction Exercises
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: Are there substitutes for those who cannot afford an inversion table to treat a stiff neck and shoulders?
Answer: You can get a Gravity Inversion Table for under a hundred dollars which is well worth the investment. However, if even this reasonable outlay towards better health is below your budget here are some alternatives:
1. Lie down on your back across your bed with the upper body /waist area at the edge of the bed. Lift the arms up overhead, hang back and relax. In this way, you can allow the upper body to hang down freely in space. Do this for 5 to 10 deep breaths or longer until you feel it's enough.
2. Using a Pnut ball or a rolled up foam mattress, lie back and relax on it.
3. Hanging by the arms from a door frame, rings or trapeze bar also result in traction in all the joints albeit not in an inverted position.
4. Exercising under water.
These alternatives will not give full inversion traction but may help to provide counteraction to the daily habitual forward bending of the body and release tension.
In short, any action or series of the practices described above will help release some of the pressure and compression damage caused by bad posture and gravity's constant downward pressure on the body. They are all beneficial.
For further information please go to my profile page and check out my articles on:
Hang Upside Down to Align Pelvis for Good Posture
Water Exercises With the Burdenko Method
Finally, this video on my YouTube Channel explains where chronic tension comes from and what to do about it with "Counter Moves".
Question: How long will it take for my stiff neck to get better?
Answer: That totally depends on the severity of your pain and whether you are able and willing to commit to some lifestyle changes and do the exercises shown in the article on a daily basis. As a rule of thumb, as soon as you start gently moving and re-aligning the neck, improvement should begin within a couple of weeks. If you stop, the pain may return. Don't forget to stay mobile in the neck with the famous "YES," "NO," and "MAYBE" exercise. Always keep your shoulders loose and relaxed by the side of your body and your head on top, not in front of the body.
Here is another article with a couple of videos you can follow to help you loosen the neck and shoulders to ease the pain.
Question: I have an injured rotator cuff. I find some of these exercises hard to do. What would you recommend for people with injuries like mine?
Answer: I would recommend doing very gentle slow arm circles. You can do them with the elbow fully bent (putting the hand on top of the shoulder), so the arm doesn't feel as heavy. Only go as far as the pain threshold. Remember my motto: No Pain, Just Gain.
When people are recovering from an injury, I recommend moving underwater in the bath, pool, hot tub, or sea. Water takes the weight off and therefore eases motion. No motion, no cure.
There is a unique method for rehabilitation using warm water therapy. It's called the Burdenko method. Have a look: https://hubpages.com/health/benefits-of-aquatic-ex...
Question: Why do I always I feel pain in my neck, shoulders and upper back after doing shoulder and other workouts at my gym?
Answer: It is difficult to say without knowing which exercises you are doing at the gym. Most likely you are doing them wrong. I suggest speaking with your trainer at the gym about this problem. In any case, always make sure you do the appropriate counter moves (recovery moves) and deep relaxation plus possible massage to relax the areas that are hurting and or overworked.
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on April 05, 2018:
There is plenty of hope Teresa. Just keep correcting your neck alignment and stay mobile.
Teresa Moore on March 27, 2018:
When you talk about neck curvature you mention if my head is over curved (which it is) I'm in trouble, when I try to straighten my neck & drop my chin my double chin turns into no chin. Am I in trouble or is there hope?
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on December 03, 2017:
I recommend doing the "Yes-No-Maybe" exercise very slowly in the bath under water. If you don't have a bath, practice in the hot shower.
daralynn dorsett on December 03, 2017:
pain in neck & shoulders over 3 months , can't sleep nor do anything. sit with heating pad & pain pills waiting for MIR to fine the reason . pain is going down arms now. Have cracking noise in neck what is this ? this site was helpful thanks
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on August 21, 2017:
Turning out the shoulder helps place it correctly by the side instead of in front of the body. Do the exercise at least once a day. Try to keep the shoulders placed correctly on a permanent basis. Soon, with practice, the new correct shoulder position will feel natural and comfortable.
Johno on August 21, 2017:
Great post thanks! I find the shoulder alignment excercise the most interesting. As I can really feel and see the difference it makes when doing the excercise pulls my right shoulder back to beside me, rather than infront where it normally sits.
My question is how do I follow up this excercise? It takes quite a bit of effort and focus to hold my shoulder in this retracted position and doesn't feel particularly natural at all. Should I be holding this position for a period of time each time I do the exercise, working my way up?
Any insight would be great, thanks!
carolyn on April 02, 2017:
Really great post. I'm a hairdresser and i've been suffering from neck and shoulder pain very frequently, and now suffering headache. Will try excersise
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on November 25, 2016:
Unfortunately I cannot tell if you are doing the exercises wrong as I cannot see how you do them. If there is no cracking, that's probably a good thing. It can mean one of two things:
1.) Your neck may not be as stiff as you thought.
2.) You are not moving deeply enough into the movement.
If you get light headed doing neck rolls, do them very slowly and breathe deeply into the movement.
Generally, for each single move:
1.) Take a deep in-breath.
2.) Move slowly
3.) Try to reach maximum possible movement range (as far as it goes).
4.) Relax into gravity at the end of each given move
5.) With a deep outbreath.
Gna on November 25, 2016:
Am I doing the neck exercises wrong? I have no creaking and I get light headed during the neck rolls.
ePetNation from Maryland on April 07, 2016:
Loved this. Great information. Thank you
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 20, 2016:
Hi, Endless Traveler,
Sorry for late reply. Yes, of course you are welcome to ad a link and thank you for sharing.
Fernanda on March 19, 2016:
Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on February 01, 2016:
I suggest gently following the videos in this article. To make it easier on the neck, once you know what to do, perform the same moves in an upside down position. Be slow,patient and gentle. Breathe deeply, and just allow gravity to straighten your neck out all by itself.
Sam Shepards from Europe on January 18, 2016:
Excellent article. Sitting behind a desk and computer screen all day I can use this information.
Judy Specht from California on December 21, 2015:
Excellent hub. Delighted to have found it. I avoided PT for my shoulder this morning because of the weather. Your exercised helped a lot.
Would you mind if I link this to a hub I am writing on Posture?
Naomi Starlight from Illinois on December 21, 2015:
Those were some helpful exercises, thanks!
The Reminder from Canada on December 02, 2015:
Very good info!
ValKaras on December 02, 2015:
Great hub, Sue, very helpful. informative, and well illustrated. What do you say about negative emotional states being the main culprit behind bad posture? People tend to physically cave in as a part of their defence mechanism. To walk and sit straight takes a person who can emotionally afford to "look the world in the eye".
Apoorva Rao on November 04, 2015:
very informative !!
Maree Michael Martin from Northwest Washington on an Island on November 02, 2015:
Easy to do exercises while I am sitting here reading this, thank you!
Great information to remind us to keep our best posture in good shape if we can.
Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on October 08, 2015: