Easy Moves to Relieve Tension and Pain in Your Neck

Neck pain and tension is often related to your day in and day out posture. For example, slaving over a computer for your job may contribute or even cause a problem known as kyphosis (rounded upper back) as well as a related forward head posture. If so, you likely crane your neck forward so you can see your computer when you work, the road when you drive and more.

Believe it or not, making the effort to recover—both from the two posture problems mentioned above and any pain or discomfort these may cause—is also good for you in other ways. It can help you become more aware of your ​body alignment, which in turn may help you prevent future problems. And it can contribute to success at the gym. This is because establishing good form (i.e. body positioning and body alignment) is a known success factor for participation in sports, fitness, and dance activities.

woman sitting her desk and rubbing her neck
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Here, we will give you several ways to achieve neck pain relief using positioning and easy moves. Most of the moves will likely help lengthen your neck and balance your head and neck in relation to the rest of your spine—in other words, improve neck and shoulder alignment. Lengthening is helpful when you need decompression, which is the creation of space between the intervertebral joints in the neck.

Neck Relief Moves for When You Sit

If you're like most people you sit a lot of hours every day. In this technological 21st century, it simply can't be helped. Even so, this reality leads to a lot of overstretched, weak, and fatigued back muscles, as well as excess tension in muscles in front. Here is a quick move you can do to help balance out the equation and create more symmetry between front and back trunk muscles.

Engage Your Back Muscles at the Desk

Place your hands on your thighs just above your knees. Inhale, then exhale and push down through your hands. This will encourage an upward lifting of your upper trunk and chest. It will also engage your back muscles. If you sit a lot or are otherwise sedentary, the contraction may feel really good.

Now that you've learned the move, let's finesse it for good posture and body awareness. This time as you push down your arms, allow your low back to move forward and your head and neck to move back. (The standing exercises below may further help you develop the ability to move your head and neck back in good alignment.)

Standing Neck Relief Moves

For a more "official" exercise, try cervical (which means neck) retraction (which means to bring back) while in the standing position.

Please note: Cervical retraction is not for everyone. If you've been diagnosed with a flat or reversed neck curve (often called in the medical profession loss of cervical kyphosis,) or a disc condition, you should check with your healthcare provider or physical therapist before trying this exercise.

There are two versions of this. The first one does not need you to be next to a wall; the second one does.

Cervical Retraction Standing—Without a Wall

Stand with good posture. This means your feet are directly beneath your hips—about 1 foot's width apart. Your knees should be straight, but not locked shut (locking adds to wear and tear on the joint.) Keeping your gaze and head level (in other words, looking neither up nor down,) tuck your chin down slightly and then push it as far back as you can.

In order to protect your neck, it's critical to do this movement gently. Also, as soon as you feel any tension arise in your shoulders or at the front of your neck or throat, stop. You can put one hand on your chin and press it back to help guide the movement if that helps.

Stay in the retracted position for 10-15 seconds. Be sure to breathe and continue to relax those neck and shoulder muscles during that time. Too much tension throws off your alignment and changes the way you use your muscles, resulting in or perpetuating muscle imbalance; this may make your neck discomfort worse.

Cervical Retraction at the Wall

You can also try cervical retraction against a wall. I like this version because the wall provides guidance for good neck on head alignment. You can also hold the position longer - for up to 60 seconds.

As with the wall-less version described above, this exercise is not for everyone. If you have disc problems in your neck or flat neck posture, ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist about whether or not you should do this one.

Stand with your feet about 1 of your foot length away from the wall's baseboard. Tuck your chin in and pull your head back towards the wall. Move very gently so that if or when your head actually reaches the wall, it doesn't do so with a thud. (No need for a head injury here.)

Stay there, with the back of your skull resting on the wall for up to 1 minute. Your neck will flatten out a bit; this is the lengthening we talked about earlier in the article.

In most cases, neck lengthening will feel relieving, but if doesn't, either reduce how far you move your head back or stop the exercise altogether. You may want to run the symptoms/pain related to trying this exercise by your healthcare provider.

Lying on Your Back With a Towel Under Your Head

If your neck, shoulders and/or upper back hurts, and you have a moment at home, you might try this re-positioning experience that takes place with you in the supine position. (Supine refers to a position in which you lie on your back.) You'll need a small or medium-sized folded towel for this.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place the folded towel under your head and neck. Position it for comfort, and to keep your head level with your spine. In other words, don't allow your head to be in front of or behind your spine — this will likely kink your neck muscles and prevent them from relaxing and releasing.

Once you're positioned, stay there for up to a couple of minutes. Simply breathe and let go.

Next, pull the distant end of the towel away from you to give your neck a bit of traction. This should only feel good. If something hurts, don't do this tweak. (And do talk to your healthcare provider about it.)

As before, stay in position for a minute or two to breath, relax and let go.

Towel Exercise Challenge 1

You can add some upper body work and stretch—as long as you don't have a neck, shoulder and/or upper back injury, that is. (If you do, consult with your healthcare provider and/or physical therapist for the best exercises and positions for you, given your condition.)

While still in the position, bring your arms back over your head (to end resting on the floor) if your shoulders are flexible enough. If they are not, place folded blankets and/or pillows in that area to give your arms a place to come to that's within the range you can handle comfortably.

Again, stay there for a few moments to breathe and relax. You may find some pockets of tension that are sorely in need of release! If that's the case, ease into this. You don't have to stay in the position for very long. You can always try again tomorrow. Over time, the intensity and your shoulder range of motion will likely improve and this position will become more comfortable.

Towel Exercise Challenge 2

This challenge releases tension at the base of the skull with sock balls. For this challenge, you'll need 2 tennis balls and a lightweight sock.

Another thing to do while you're lying on your back requires two tennis balls in a sock. The sock should be tied at one end to allow for the balls to touch and not move around. Place the sock with the balls in it on the floor, and under the base of your skull. This is the area at the back of your head towards the bottom where the skull bone protrudes out. (Directly beneath that area is your neck.)

Then, spend a few moments (up to 10) breathing and relaxing the weight of your head into the sock-balls. If there's pain, you can shorten the amount of time you spend in this position. Otherwise, you might also consider turning on some soft music.

An Advanced Tweak to Challenge 2

The sock-balls are placed in an area of your skull known as the occipital condyles. (You don't have to remember that term to be successful with this technique, though.)

The condyles provide attachments for muscles in a group known as the sub-occipitals. Sub-occipital muscles consist of the rectus capitis posterior major and minor, and oblique capitis inferior and superior. These muscles play roles in turning and/or tilting your head towards the side of the contracting muscle, as well as extending your head backward.

If your pain levels permit while you're on the sock-balls, you might gently roll around on them. The sub-occipitals, discussed above, often have tightness, spasms and/or trigger points that can cause pain and negatively affect your posture. Many people find that using the sock-balls is a very effective way of working such kinks and tensions out.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.