If you’ve ever experienced neck pain, then you know how painful and annoying it can be. Neck pain can be caused by many factors, sometimes an acute injury to the head or neck and other times it can come on for seemingly no reason with no actual injury to pin it to. Either way, I’d like to help you escape this neck pain and also make sure it doesn’t come back in the future.

If your neck pain is caused by an acute injury, such as a whiplash injury sustained by a car accident or sport-related incident, then you probably sustained some ligament strain and/or muscular strain. If your neck pain is at a high level, I initially recommend ice to decrease the swelling and pain. It is very helpful to have a physical therapist (P.T.) evaluate the region as soon as possible to determine a plan for you, and also make sure to clear you from other more serious complications such as bony malalignment, possible fractures or need for diagnostic testing and/or nerve-related issues. It’s very important during this acute phase to be aware of your neck position and keep a proper posture to help with the healing.

When your neck is less acutely inflamed, or if you have not sustained an actual injury to it then it is a great time to start to stabilize, strengthen or stretch the neck. Your P.T. will test and evaluate your neck to determine where to begin and what is the best plan for you. Often during this stage you will find relief with using heat for bringing blood-flow to the area and decreasing the muscle tightness.

What I find is that when someone has had neck pain for a while they actually stop moving their head and neck, and this can lead to more issues. The neck likes to move, and we should be able to move it in all directions. Some simple yet effective movement exercises are: looking up to the ceiling and down to the floor, rotating the head side to side and bringing the ear to shoulder laterally. Pain-free movement is key, and don’t force the movement beyond that point.

Also very common is that our neck becomes weak or less “stable,” and the little muscles don’t engage and do their job as well as they should to hold our head on straight. This can cause pain and muscular compensations. A great neck strengthening exercise that helps with posture as well is called a “chin retraction.” This is where you pull the head backwards like a turtle pulling it’s head into the shell. With this, be sure to keep your chin level with the ground and start from neutral head position (not forward head position). Keep your spine straight and lifted, and you should feel a gentle amount of muscles working in the neck.

Lastly, but not least, is stretching. Stretching can be very effective to get rid of tightness, stiffness and pain. The upper trapezius muscles are between the head and shoulders on the side of the neck, and tend to get tight on people. A great stretch is bringing your ear to shoulder as far as you can comfortably, and hold for 30 seconds while it relaxes. Be sure to sit tall and not lean your body to the side, just the neck. I would do this throughout the day, three to five times. This is especially great for people who work on computers, as these muscles tend to overwork and get painful.

Enjoy these tips for escaping your neck pain, and you should expect to see improvements each day. Remember, movement is key as well as strengthening and stretching the muscles. If it is not improving then go see your P.T. for further evaluation and recommendation as needed.