How to Effectively Stretch Your Neck to Improve Neck Posture, Relieve Tension and Reduce Pain

Do you ever catch yourself rolling your neck to break out of stiffness? When you rub the pain in your neck, do you feel hard, knobby muscle tissue?

If your neck feels tight you’ll likely get a lot of relief from learning how to stretch your neck effectively.

Stretching your neck isn’t quite as simple as it sounds due to the complexity of the muscles that make up the muscles of your neck. There are muscles all around the neck.

If you want to relieve neck tightness, aches and pain, you’ll need to know how to stretch all the muscles of your neck.

Not only can stretching these muscles help with pain, but it can also improve your neck and head posture.

Your neck is filled with muscle tissue and contains a portion of your spine known as the cervical spine.

As such, the posture of your neck is just as important as that of your back. When your head juts out because your upper back and shoulders are rounded and your neck is craned, it’s known as “forward head posture.”

Forward head posture leaves your neck tight and vulnerable to pain, and at the same time, tight neck muscles are also one of the causes of forward head posture.

In this post, we’ll cover how forward head posture causes neck tightness and what you can do to correct it.

We’ll also include several techniques, involving stretching and myofascial release, you can start doing right away for neck tightness and pain relief.


Do You Suffer from Neck Tightness?

Neck tightness develops slowly over time due to bad posture habits and not taking care of the tension that builds up from postural stress.

By the time it becomes neck pain, typically the muscles have been tightening up for so long that you couldn’t notice they were starting to limit your range of motion.

If you ever experience stiffness or spasms in your neck muscles, those are signs the muscles are tight and under too much stress.

Pain and reduced mobility are other symptoms. If these symptoms reduce when you perform self-massage or myofascial release, that tells you you’re dealing with tightness in your neck.


Causes of Neck Tightness

Chronic tightness in your neck, which can be accompanied by pain, comes from a variety, and sometimes a combination, of causes.

Forward Head Posture

The underlying issue, however, is forward head posture, where your neck doesn’t align with the rest of your spine.

When your head is in a forward head posture, the muscles of your neck are typically in a shortened position.

The more you hold your head in this forward position, the more your muscles get used to this shortened position. This leads to chronically tight neck muscles.

Poor Ergonomic Setup

Your neck muscles are constantly recruited for supporting and stabilizing your head, even during periods of physical inactivity.

In fact, it’s the long hours of sitting at a desk, driving a car or slouching over a smartphone that puts the most stress on your neck. In these positions your head will likely be in a forward head position unless you are continually aware of your posture.

When you don’t support your body weight in an ergonomic chair and desk setup, it’s bound to cause neck tightness due to the constant craning of your neck.

The Way You Sleep

If you’re not sleeping with your neck aligned with the rest of your spine, your neck is in an unnatural position for hours every night.

Without adequate neck support, your neck muscles become taut and tightened as they work to stabilize your neck and head.

Stress and TMJ

Emotional stress manifests as physical tension, which is why temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder is most often stress-related.

TMJ involves jaw, facial and neck tightness and clenching. If you clench or grind your teeth as you sleep at night, you’re especially prone to waking up with neck tightness.


The Neck Muscles You Need to Know

Virtually all muscles in your neck are responsible for balancing, turning and tilting your head, and there are more muscles in your neck than you might think.

Under the postural stress and strain involved in holding your head up when you have forward head posture, all the major neck muscles are susceptible to tightness.

These muscles are:

Upper Traps

The Trapezius Image By Mikael Häggström

The upper trapezius, or upper traps, are found at the back of your neck on either side.

They’re flat, broad, band-like muscles that form a triangle shape, and they’re used to tilt, turn and nod your head.

These muscles can be considered part of your back muscles, but they go hand in hand with potential neck stiffness.

Whereas the lower traps help with the movement of your torso, shoulders and arms, the upper traps are primarily involved with stabilizing your head.

When your upper traps are tight, they typically pull your shoulders up and can cause a lot of aches.

People who are stressed out all the time should pay a lot of attention to their upper traps.

Levator Scapulae

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae is a band-like muscle in the back and side of your neck on either side.

It’s mostly hidden beneath your upper traps, and its main function is to help lift and rotate your shoulder joints.

It’s also recruited when you tilt your head side to side, and it plays a role in stabilizing your head from the sides.

Sternocleidomastoid

Sternocleidomastoid muscle

The Sternocleidomastoid muscle is the band that runs along the front of the neck on either side.

Sometimes, you can see the Sternocleidomastoid just looking at the front of your neck. Either way, you can feel for it by starting at the base of your neck where the two collarbones meet.

The Sternocleidomastoid helps facilitate virtually all head and neck movements, such as rotating, tilting and nodding the head.

This is one of the major neck muscles and one you should get to know intimately so you can take care of it.

Scalenes

Scalenes. Image By Mikael Häggström

The scalene muscles at the back of your neck work together to tilt, nod and rotate the head.

They include the anterior scalene, middle scalene (the longest) and the posterior scalene muscle (the smallest).

By flexing, they help you move your head side to side, and they’re sometimes involved in nodding and rotating your head, depending on the position you’re in.

Cervical Flexors

The cervical flexors, also called your deep neck flexors, are a group of 4 muscles in charge of stabilizing the cervical spine from the front and side of your neck.

These muscles are vital to good posture because they’re there to stabilize your neck and head.


How to Fix Forward Head Posture and Relieve Neck Pain: 2 Step Process

Now let’s look at what you can do about forward head posture and the neck tightness and muscle pain it brings on.

Here are two important techniques you can’t afford to skip:

Massage and Myofascial Release

When your neck feels tight and stiff, or if it’s causing pain, it’s natural to want to rub the muscles and try to squeeze out the tightness.

This is exactly what self-massage and myofascial release, or trigger point release, are about.

They target the muscles and the layer of fascia around them to loosen up contracted fibres and stimulate blood flow.

With the help of myofascial release tools, these techniques are great at relieving neck pain right away and improving chronic neck pain over time.

Stretching

Stretching helps pull open contracted muscles so they can elongate and bring your posture back into alignment.

Stretching your neck is critical to maintaining your head’s range of motion, which affects your vision.

If you’ve lost some mobility in your neck, stretching it every day can help you get it back. Sometimes, neck stretches help alleviate pain, but they’re best for improving your posture and mobility over time.


Neck Stretches and Release Techniques to Fix Forward Head Posture and Neck Tightness

Here we’ve compiled a list of exercises you can do to alleviate neck tension and pain. At the same time, these exercises help retrain your muscles to fix forward head posture.

Each step will target one muscle of the neck and show myofascial release techniques to remove trigger points that cause tightness, followed by steps on how to stretch out that muscle.

With regular practice, you can see improvements in your posture and even prevent stiffness and tension in your neck.

1. Upper Traps

If you suffer from neck tightness you likely suffer from tight upper traps too.

They become tight as they buckle down to take on extra weight keeping your head up in front of your torso.

Here are some exercises you can do to help relieve pain and tightness in your upper traps:

Upper Traps Massage Ball Release

A massage ball is a great tool for digging into trigger points, but if you don’t have one, you can try using a tennis or lacrosse ball.

  • Hold the massage ball between your upper trap muscle and a wall, feeling for the thick, bandlike muscle located at the far back of your neck on either side of the spine.
  • Lean your weight back into the ball to apply pressure to trigger points in your upper traps. You should feel a loosening of the space between your neck and shoulder joint, and your neck will feel more relaxed, too.
  • Roll the ball around in small movements to knead out tough muscle tissue in your upper traps.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Upper Traps Massage Cane Release

A massage cane is a knobby stick shaped like a cane because it has a hook, or sometimes two hooks, making an “S” shape.

Different massage canes have different shapes, but if you use one with a “J” hook at the end like the Thera Cane or the Body Back Buddy, you can use it to release your upper traps.

  • Place the knob at the end of the “hook” of your massage cane at the base of the back of your neck on one side.
  • Pull down on the cane to dig the massage cane knob into your upper trap, which should feel like a large, thick muscle at the back of your neck on either side of your cervical spine.

Upper Traps Dynamic Stretch

A dynamic stretch, as opposed to a static stretch, is stretching through controlled movement, rather than holding static positions.

Here is a dynamic stretch that will loosen them up even more than if you held a static stretch.

  • Sit up straight with your neck in line with your back
  • Turn your head to the right as far as it will go
  • Slowly return to a neutral position
  • Turn your head to the left and look over your shoulder as far as you can
  • Continue repeating this movement for 30 to 60 seconds.

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae are neck muscles designed mostly for shoulder movement, and when your posture is aligned, they play more of a secondary role in supporting your neck and head.

Forward head posture puts higher demand on the muscles, recruiting them to help facilitate movements like nodding up and down [1].

Levator Scapulae Massage Cane Release

You can release your levator scapulae the same way you did your upper trap muscles because they are located in virtually the same place, except the upper traps mostly conceal the levator scapulae.

However, you can pinpoint trigger points in the levator scapulae with a massage cane. You can tell you’ve hit a trigger point on it when you feel pain locally where you apply pressure.

Trigger points in the upper traps, on the other hand, send pain upwards. The levator scapulae will also feel like a small band compared to the thicker, wider upper traps.

Levator Scapulae Stretch

  • Sit up tall in a chair.
  • Place your right hand on your right shoulder so that your elbow is pointing directly upwards.
  • Turn your neck about 30 degrees to the left so that you’re looking at your left knee.
  • Use your left hand to gently pull your head downward into a stretch you feel on the right side toward the back of your neck, in your levator scapulae.
  • Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.

Sternocleidomastoid

The Sternocleidomastoid becomes excessively tight if you have forward head posture, and becomes of the tightness it pulls your head forward.

Without your head sitting balanced on your neck and torso, your Sternocleidomastoid contracts and tightens in its new forward position. Stretching and releasing the Sternocleidomastoid can help move your head upright and out of a forward head posture.

Sternocleidomastoid Massage and Myofascial Release

The best way to release trigger points in your Sternocleidomastoid is by squeezing the band of muscle tissue with your hand. You can feel along the length of it on either side for trigger points, and apply pressure accordingly.

Standing Sternocleidomastoid Stretch

  • Stand up straight with your neck in line with the rest of your spine.
  • Drop your head down to your left shoulder, keeping your torso straight and your shoulders pressing down away from your ears.
  • Roll your right shoulder back.
  • Keeping your head tilted left, rotate your neck slightly right so that you’re looking upwards.
  • Feel the stretch along your right Sternocleidomastoid and hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Slowly release to a neutral position and then repeat on the other side.

Seated Sternocleidomastoid Stretch

  • Sit up straight in a chair and hold onto the left edge of it with your left hand.
  • Lean to your right until you feel a good stretch in the left side of your neck.
  • Turn your head to look over your left shoulder.
  • In this position, extend your neck backwards, using your right hand to help pull your head back and stretch your Sternocleidomastoid.
  • Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then slowly release and repeat on the other side.

Scalenes

In a forward head posture, your scalenes become shortened and tightened along with the Sternocleidomastoid as they are pulled forward out of their natural position [2].

Scalene Massage Ball Release

  • Lay down on your side on a mat with a massage ball in hand.
  • Use an object like a yoga block, a book or a rolled-up yoga mat as a platform for your massage ball so that you can roll the ball into the side of your neck without the floor getting in the way of your head.
  • Gently and slowly rotate your neck to move the ball around on your muscle tissue. Start at your collar bone and work up along the side of your neck to the base of your skull.
  • Turn over onto your other side and repeat on the opposite side of your neck.
  • Note: You can also hit your Sternocleidomastoid using this technique.

Scalene Dynamic Stretch

  • Stand or sit upright and drop your head to your right shoulder.
  • Keep your shoulders pressing down as you lengthen the left side of your neck, feeling the muscles stretch.
  • Continuing to stretch the left side of your neck with your head tilting right, rotate your head to the left so that you’re looking upwards.
  • Keeping your neck in the same position, rotate your head to the right so that you’re looking down at your right shoulder.
  • Rotate your head to the left again, and then to the right, repeating for 30 to 60 seconds as you focus on feeling the muscles stretch throughout the left side of your neck.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Lifestyle Changes for Preventing Neck Tightness

The postures you habitually hold for long periods a day are typically the top cause of neck tightness and pain.

With this in mind, you should be looking to change your lifestyle so your neck muscles aren’t always in positions that make them tight in the first place. These lifestyle changes should be made in conjunction with frequent neck stretching.

As such, it’s important to make some changes at your desk, in your car or wherever else you sit for long periods.

Here are some tips for doing so:

Be Smart About Smartphones

Maybe you send emails, make purchases or keep track of your calendar on your smartphone. Be aware of craning your neck down at your phone.

Instead, use the phone at an armchair or table with your elbows supported so you can hold the phone up at eye-level. Be sure to do this when you have the option.

Invest in an Ergonomic Chair

An ergonomically designed chair is engineered more intelligently, with your back and neck muscles in mind. Kneeling chairs and using a good lumbar support for your chair are also smart options.

It helps you sit an a correctly aligned posture as you sit in it so that there’s less strain on your muscles to support your body weight.

Adjust the ergonomic chair so that your knees are just slightly below the level of your hips.

To protect your neck, your monitor should be right at your eye level, directly in front of your face so that you’re not craning your neck to look up or sideways for hours a day.

Don’t Use Your Laptop Keyboard

It’s impossible to sit ergonomically correct at a laptop, so if you use a laptop for work, get ahold of a plug-in or wireless external keyboard and mouse. Using an external monitor also avoids you having to crane over a small laptop screen.

You should also consider setting up a standing desk and anti-fatigue mat combination to prevent too much time sitting down.

Use it at a desk that has a slide-out keyboard drawer so that you can sit at your chair with your arms down by your sides.

When your arms are up on your laptop keyboard, it stresses your shoulders, neck and upper back and it’s definitely a contributor to forward head posture if you do it hours a day.

Take Breaks to Stretch and Massage Your Neck

Poor posture develops when you hold bad postures like forward head posture for an hour or more without moving, such as when you’re stationary working at a desk or sitting in the driver’s seat for a long commute.

Every 30 minutes or so, you should do some neck stretches, or even use a self-massage tool to knead out your neck muscles. Shoulder and neck massagers are perfect devices to help prevent your neck from tightening up and to provide targeted massage to your muscles.

While it may seem like a lot, it’s a surefire way to stop neck pain and fix your forward head posture, by keeping your neck muscles loosened up and not set in a forward head posture.

Conclusion

If you can tell from your profile view that you have forward head posture, you can correct it through the regular practice of exercises that correct alignment.

Massaging and stretching your neck helps ease pain, eliminate stiffness and restore circulation. Without addressing your forward head posture, however, the neck pain will keep coming back.

Nonetheless, it takes time and may not be a full fix.

Intense sessions of myofascial release and stretching, especially the first or second time you do these exercises, can result in sore, tender muscles the next day.

However, if any of the exercises or stretches put you in greater pain, be sure to see your doctor about your neck pain.

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