Neck and shoulder pain sucks. I’ve been dealing with a shoulder injury for a little less than a year, so I can attest to this statement.
However, most neck and shoulder issues don’t stem from injuries. They often stem from spending countless hours everyday in front of a computer or cellphone. Heads jutted forward, and shoulders in a slouched position – look at anyone walking about and you’ll find this example in just about everyone.
The Superficial Back Line
All of the muscles in your body are connected by fascia, the soft tissue between muscles and skin.
The superficial back line is the group of fascia that runs from the top of your head, down the entire back side of your body to your feet. It’s what keeps you standing upright, amongst other things.
Misalignment, or restriction, of the superficial back line, can lead to neck and shoulder pain. For example, a dysfunction in the hips might misalign the lower back, which then misaligns the thoracic spine, and then affects the stability of the shoulder. This can then affect the neck muscles (1).
If you do the below stretches, or have been dealing with neck and shoulder pain for quite some time, even if you continually focus on stretching out the neck and shoulder muscles, I suggest seeking out a physiotherapist or kinesiologist. They can take a look at your body as a whole to pinpoint what might be going on.
If your situation truly is, however, caused by restriction of the neck and shoulder muscles, then the exercises below will be sure to help you out. But first, let’s talk about posture.
Fixing Your Posture
Being conscious of your posture, while sitting and standing, is a crucial part of ensuring your neck and shoulder pain doesn’t stay with you forever.
There are three lifestyle factors that could be contributing to your neck and shoulder discomfort:
1. Tech-Neck (forward head posture)
Staring at any screen for many hours each day puts our bodies in a very unnatural position. Whether you’re staring at a computer screen, looking down at a smartphone or tablet, watching television or gaming, these activities are going to have major strain on your shoulders and neck. While performing these activities, we have a tendency to lean forward, neck jutted outward. This stretches the neck extensors, weakens the neck flexors, and adds about 60 pounds of pressure to the neck and upper back.
Solution: Proper posture is key to avoid stress put on the neck. Be mindful of the position of your head while you sit and walk, and keep it in line with your shoulders so that the spine remains straight (2). If you work at a computer, take frequent breaks to walk around.
2. Reaching Forward (rounded shoulder posture)
Actions that pull your arms forward like driving, cooking, keyboarding, or even spin classes, cause the shoulders to round. This creates tightness in the chest and weakens the back muscles.
Solution: Strengthen your back muscles, specifically the trapezius and rhomboids of the upper back and lattisimus dorsi on the back and sides of the body.
Stress not only causes mental tension, but it creates physical tension as well. When your sympathetic nervous system fires up, your muscles tighten up and can sometimes remain stuck in that position for months, if not years. Many people hold stress in their backs, causing muscle knots and pain.
Solution: Reducing stress in your life is as easy as taking time to do some deep breathing exercises throughout the day. Exercise, listening to music, yoga, meditation, art therapy, and other modalities of stress release should always be incorporated in your day.
Exercises to Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain
The following exercises and stretches will loosen up tight muscles, as well as strengthen and provide flexibility to the muscles. They are designed to improve mobility of the neck and upper back, as well as correct poor posture.
Perform the exercises in a series (one after the other) so that you target each muscle group in the spine, shoulders and neck.
1. Neck Retraction Exercise
This exercise improves flexibility of the neck, and reduces pressure on the spinal nerves. It can help get rid of “tech-neck”, and tension headaches caused by tight sub-occipital muscles.
1. Start by lying on your back, knees bent, arms down by the side, and the eyes straight up to the ceiling.
2. Inhale, and gently jut the chin forward to the ceiling (not too much, just a little), keeping the back of the head to the floor.
3. Exhale, and retract the chin in towards the throat, and feel the back of the neck lengthen. In this phase, you are focusing on lengthening the neck against the floor.
4. Repeat 6-8 times.
2. Cow Face Pose
A great pose for opening up tight shoulders, allowing for full muscle release.
1. From all fours, cross your right knee over the left, stacking one on top of the other. Sit down between your legs, so that your buttocks is on the floor. You can rest on a block or blanket if your hips are too tight.
2. Inhale, and reach your right arm out to the side, then rotate the arm inward so that the thumb faces the ground. Exhale your arm behind your back, bend the elbow, and work your hand up towards your neck. Roll your right shoulder back and down.
3. Inhale, and reach your left arm forward, palm facing up, and draw your arm towards the sky. Exhale, and bend your elbow. Reach to grasp your finger of your opposite hand. You can use a strap or towel if your fingers do not yet clasp.
4. Hold for a couple minutes, and repeat on the opposite side. Do 3 reps for each arm.
3. Thoracic Extension
Rolling out the thoracic spine with a foam roller will help get rid of the rounded upper back most people suffer from in today’s world. It will allow you greater range of motion and also improve your posture (which, therefore, reduces neck strain).
1. Lay on your back with a foam roller horizontally underneath your upper back at about the top of your shoulder blades.
2. Support your head by clasping your hands behind your head.
3. Roll back and forth slowly all the way from your upper shoulder blades to your middle to lower back. Try to avoid rolling the lower back.
4. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and utilize the variations in the video above. Try to avoid curving the lower back, and keep it straight.
4. Wall Scapular Push-Up
Strengthens the serratus anterior and improves overall shoulder mobility.
1. Place your hands on a wall in front of you with fully extended arms.
2. Keep your core engaged, and your body and arms straight as you squeeze the shoulder blades together (during this action, your shoulder blades will be drawing together toward the midline of your back, and your chest moves a few inches closer to the wall).
3. Press into your hands as you draw the shoulder blades apart, and slightly round out the upper back. This is a slow and controlled movement.
4. Hold the retracted position (with shoulder blades drawing together) for 2-3 seconds.
5. Repeat 10 times.
5. Behind the Back Neck Stretch
A great exercise to release tight shoulder joints, and to release pressure around the area of the shoulder that meets the neck.
1. Stand straight and clasp your hands behind your lower back.
2. Keeping your arms extended, slowly raise them behind you until you feel a nice stretch through the front of each shoulder and across your chest. Hold for 30 seconds.
3. You can flip your hands so that the palms face outward – this will give you a deeper stretch, but it requires a lot of flexibility.
4. Avoid bending forward, and don’t force the stretch – you should not feel any pain.
5. Repeat 3 times.
6. Open Book Exercise
Improves thoracic rotation, which is necessary if you sit at a desk all day. Also helps open up the pectoral muscles in the front of the chest.
1. Start by lying on your side with your knees bent in front of your hips and hands over your ears, elbows pointing forward.
2. Inhale, and reach the top elbow to the ceiling, as you move your head to look up to the elbow.
3. Exhale, and bring the top elbow down behind your body as far back as it will go. You can place a pillow or other prop behind you if you can’t quite reach the floor.
4. Stay in this open position for a full inhale and exhale, relaxing your shoulders.
5. Inhale again, and then exhale and return to starting position.
6. Do 5 repetitions on each side.
7. Prone Cobra Pose
This exercise is great for conditioning the postural muscles.
1. Lie face down on an exercise mat with your legs straight and arms against your sides.
2. Start by raising your legs, chest, head, and arms off the ground. Raise them as high as comfortably possible.
3. Rotate your arms so that your thumbs are sticking up toward the ceiling (arms are still behind you).
4. Hold this position for 60 seconds, and then slowly release.
5. Repeat 10 times.
8. Doorway Stretch
The perfect stretch for opening up the chest to prevent slouching, and therefore, neck and shoulder strain.
1. Stand inside a doorway and bend your right arm at a 90 degree angle, and place your forearm against the doorframe.
2. Position the bent elbow at about shoulder height. Alternatively, you can just grab the doorframe with your hand as shown in the picture above.
3. Rotate your chest to the left until you feel a nice stretch in the chest and front shoulder.
4. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat with the opposite arm.
9. Straight Arm Wall Stretch
This stretch is good for lengthening and stretching muscles in the front of the shoulder (like the pec muscles), and rotator cuff area. It will help with good posture, and thus, less strain on the shoulders and neck.
1. Find a wall and flatten your arm all the way against the wall, with the arm parallel to the ground, and palm facing the wall.
2. Keep your shoulder pressed to the wall, and then slowly move your chest away from the wall so that your shoulders are perpendicular to the arm.
3. Hold for 30-60 seconds and repeat on the other side. You can do different angles with each arm as demonstrated in the video above.