If you suffer from neck pain, chances are you’ve tried heating pads, painkillers and perhaps even repeated visits to a physical therapist, osteopath or chiropractor.
But new research shows that simple neck exercises can relieve neck pain.
Important new research: In a landmark study published earlier this year in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers followed 272 people suffering from neck pain of less than three months’ duration with no specific known cause. One group received pain medication and muscle relaxants for 12 weeks…another had 12 weeks of spinal manipulation sessions…and a third group did 12 weeks of special daily neck exercises.
Findings: Spinal manipulation was more effective than medication at improving neck pain by the end of 12 weeks of treatment and one year later—and participants who did home neck exercises experienced improvement in their pain similar to that achieved with spinal manipulation.
WHY THESE EXERCISES WORK
Various factors contribute to neck pain, including chronic strain on the joints and ligaments due to poor posture, minor trauma and excessive work in front of a computer.
The neck exercises used in the neck pain study described above were adapted from a program developed by New Zealand physical therapist Robin McKenzie. The “McKenzie Method” brings the neck into normal alignment by reinforcing its natural curves and rebalancing supporting muscles. Through numerous gentle repetitions, these exercises help you develop a healthier posture, eliminating stress on the neck’s joints and ligaments.
HOME EXERCISE PROGRAM
If you suffer from neck pain or stiffness, the following sequence of exercises should be performed six to eight times throughout the day (a total of about 30 to 40 minutes daily).*
Keep doing the routine as long as your neck pain continues to improve. Once you reach a plateau, do the exercises just once a day to maintain a healthy neck and prevent a recurrence.
All of the exercises should be done while sitting on a straight-backed chair or stool, except for the two lying-down versions. As you hold each position, take one full, deep breath—inhaling, then exhaling and relaxing.
EXERCISE 1: Head retraction. While sitting in a relaxed position and looking straight ahead, slowly move your head backward as far as you can. Next, tuck in your chin as much as possible toward your throat while continuing to look straight ahead. Hold this position for three seconds, then return to starting position. Repeat 10 times.
If this exercise is too difficult: While lying on your back on a bed (without a pillow), tuck in your chin toward your throat. Hold this position as you push your head backward into the bed for three seconds. Repeat 10 times.
EXERCISE 2: Head retraction with extension. Tuck in your chin and pull your head backward, as in Exercise #1. While keeping your head pulled back, lift your chin up and tilt your head back as far as you can. Hold this position for three seconds as you rotate your head a half inch to the right and then a half inch to the left. Return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence 10 times.
If this exercise is too difficult: While lying on your back on your bed with your head, neck and the tops of your shoulders extending off the bed, support your head with one hand. Next, tilt your head backward as far as you can. Hold this position for three seconds as you rotate your head a half inch to the right and then a half inch to the left. Return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence 10 times.
EXERCISE 3: Head retraction with side bending. Tuck in your chin and pull your head backward, as in Exercise #1. While continuing to look straight ahead, put your right hand on your head and gently tilt your head so that your right ear moves as far as possible toward your right shoulder. Hold this position for three seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat five times on each side.
EXERCISE 4: Head retraction with rotation. Tuck in your chin and pull your head backward, as in Exercise #1. While maintaining this posture, turn your head to the right as far as you can and hold this position for three seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat five times on each side.
EXERCISE 5: Head flexion. Relax completely, then let your head fall forward so that your chin drops to your chest. Put your hands behind your head, then let your arms relax so your elbows point downward and the weight of your arms gently pulls your chin even closer to your chest. Hold this position for three seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat five times. After completing Exercise #5, do 10 additional repetitions of Exercise #2.
EXERCISE 6: Scapular retraction. This exercise strengthens the shoulders’ scapular muscles, which help support the base of the neck. Hold your arms at your sides with your elbows bent at 90º angles. While maintaining this position and continuing to look straight ahead, pull your elbows back behind you until you feel a squeezing between your shoulder blades. Hold for three seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat five times.
*Check with your doctor before trying these exercises. If your neck pain worsens as a result of the exercises, stop them and see your doctor for advice.
Source: Gert Bronfort, DC, PhD, vice president of research at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota. A leading researcher on chiropractic and complementary and alternative medicine, Dr. Bronfort has authored several systematic reviews of the literature on treating neck, back and headache pain. He is also associate editor for the Cochrane Back Review Group and serves on the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Bronfort is coauthor, with Roni Evans, DC, of the neck pain study in Annals of Internal Medicine. Dr. Evans also contributed to this article.