Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.
Many activities we do every day—reading, driving, watching TV, looking at our phones—involve staring at something in front of us. It’s normal to crane your head forward to get a better view. But it’s not natural, and it can lead to neck pain.
“The average human head weighs 8 to 11 pounds,” says Meghan Lamothe, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC, a physical therapist at HSS. “The neck, by comparison, is very intricate and thin. The neck also acts as the head’s support system, so if your head’s out of position, your neck is going to be the victim.”
First, it’s important to get neck pain checked out to ensure you don’t need prompt medical care, especially if the pain is accompanied by severe headache, vision changes or any other neurological signs or symptoms. “There are so many vital structures in the neck,” says Lamothe. “That includes the vasculature—the arteries and veins—and nerves running to and from your brain.”
Once you get the all-clear, Lamothe recommends engaging in some mindful movement every day. Doing so can be good for all your joints, including those in your neck. Here are some ways to begin.
You can’t look behind you like an owl, but your neck is likely more mobile than you think. Most people can safely look up, down and to each side, moving their neck slowly to shift their gaze. Just take it slow, Lamothe warns. “Don’t go zero to 100 with your motion. You have to find a happy medium.”
You can also do neck circles using a controlled, smooth movement. “This lubricates the joints in your neck by circulating the synovial, or joint, fluid,” she says. Lamothe notes that it’s normal to hear crackling sounds when doing neck circles so long as it’s not accompanied by pain.
“Our bodies were built to be vertical and mobile,” says Lamothe. “Sitting in one position for too long can have negative effects on our whole body, particularly the neck.”
She suggests setting an alarm to remind you to get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour throughout the day. Before you walk, use the chin tuck instructions below to reset your posture.
Even people who don’t have neck pain can benefit from this movement. The chin tuck corrects your posture in two easy steps.
Do this movement whenever you get up to walk around or sit down—or whenever you catch yourself slouching or craning.
“I often see people in the gym who have great workout form except their neck is out of alignment,” says Lamothe. Often this happens because we try to watch ourselves in a mirror to check our form or progress.
To keep your neck in a neutral, healthy position, pretend there is a broomstick laying on your back from your head to your tailbone. When you hinge over to do dumbbell rows, sit upright in a stationary bike seat or do a plank or pushup, that imaginary stick should always be touching the back of your head and the small of your back.
You can have a friend hold a real stick in that spot to help get a feel for how to line things up. Or you can stand with your back against the wall and do the chin tuck to pull your neck back in line. The more often you correct your form, the easier it will become to maintain it.
Lamothe notes that your neck position can be a sign that you’re exercising too hard. If you’re too spent to keep your spine neutral, take a break or ease off until you can use proper form. Keep this in mind when doing physical tasks at home, too, like heavy yardwork or housework.
This gentle yoga stretch helps relax the neck as well as the shoulders, lower back and spine. It’s also a great way to end a workout or relieve stress at the end of the day.
If your aches and pains are limiting your ability to do everyday activities, you can go right to a physical therapist, says Lamothe. You don’t need to wait for a referral. “It can take two to four weeks of PT to ease neck pain,” she adds. “But it’s well worth the time. Think of it as neck maintenance, like dental care. You brush your teeth and see a dentist twice a year. Doesn’t your neck deserve a little TLC too?”