3 stretches exercise for stiff and painful neck - from a physical therapist
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3 clinically proven stretches to relieve neck and shoulder pain

3 stretches for neck stiffness and pain

I could use some neck rubbing right now for my neck and shoulder pain, you think to yourself.

And you would be right.

Neck and shoulder pain can often trigger tension headaches, leading to distraction and poor focus.

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It often also causes morning crankiness, dragging Wednesdays, and “I don’t know why I feel so burned out and depressed” evenings.

Stiff neck can even put us at risk for chronic neck pain, chronic shoulder pain, nerve impingement or entrapment syndrome, and of course neck disc pathology.

Have I gotten your attention? Good, because the stretches are EASY.

These three stretches are my go-to homework for neck pain and shoulder pain patients. And I am so often surprised that most of my patients have never heard of it.

Now, let me show you the way to the exclusive club of people who know how to stretch their neck properly!

The “Smell My Armpit Stretch”

Yes, you heard me right. The name is highly descriptive and easy to remember.

What’s being stretched here is your levator scapulae muscle. The name simply suggests that the muscle lifts your shoulder blades up.

However, the truth is: this poor muscle pulls our head back when we wind up with poor posture while trying to look at the monitor or TV. The muscle often becomes highly exhausted and we cannot blame it for being tight. Well, the first step to help its situation is to stretch it.

nose to armpit stretch
Smell Your Armpit Stretch...
  • First, try to sit or stand with good posture.
  • If you are stretching your right side of your neck, turn you head 45 deg to the left.
  • Then directly put your nose in the direction of your arm pit as far as you can without compromising your posture.
  • At this time, you should feel the stretch on the back of your neck on Right side. If the stretch is only minimum, you may use your left hand to pull your head down further towards your armpit to gain further stretching.
  • Hold this stretch for 30 - 40 seconds. Relax and repeat on the opposite side.

The “Ear to Shoulder Stretch”

You are right; this one is not as funny name wise.

However, it is just as important.

This stretch is for the notorious upper trapezius muscle. Never heard of it? This is the muscle that gets rubbed whenever you get a neck massage from a loved one. You may also call it shrugging muscle. The upper trapezius muscle is responsible for lifting our shoulders up. In this modern age, we have so much to be stressed about, and shrugging is one of our Fight or Flight reflexes. Often, people may say that “you carry you stress on your shoulders.”

ear to shoulder stretch
Ear to Shoulder Stretch...
  • First, try to sit or stand with a good posture.
  • If you are stretching your right side, tilt your neck to the left by bringing your left ear to left shoulder, without compromising your posture or tensing up your left shoulder.
  • At this time, you should feel the stretch on the right side of your neck. If the stretch is only minimum, you may use your left hand to pull your head to tilt further to the left to gain more stretching.
  • Hold this stretch for 30 - 40 seconds. Relax and repeat on the opposite side.

The “Look, there's a spider on the ceiling!” Stretch

Or, as my colleagues call it, an “angle stretch” or scalene stretch.

The scalene muscle is not very well known by the public. However, given what mischief it can manage once it becomes stiff and tight, everyone should learn about them and learn how to treat them right. Let’s learn to stretch it first.

  • First, try to sit or stand with good posture.
  • If you are stretching your right side, turn you head 45 deg to the left. Then tilt your head back to look up to the ceiling as far as you can without extending your back.
  • At this time, you should be observing a corner of the ceiling, and you should feel the stretch on the front of your neck on the right side. You may cross your hands in front of your chest to hold down your collar bones, making you look like an angel statue.
  • Hold this stretch for 30 - 40 seconds. Relax and repeat on the opposite side.
scalene stretch

How frequently should I do these?

If you are an office worker, I highly suggest that you set alarm on your high tech phones to repeat this stretch every hour.

In general, these stretches may be done 3-5 times throughout the day to help with reducing neck stiffness. Making these stretches a part of your daily routine will prevent stiff necks and tension headaches from occurring.

Who should NOT perform these stretches

If you have neck pain, shoulder pain or hand numbness/tingling, you may try these stretches with caution. If you experience any increase in your pain or symptoms, you should stop right away and avoid these stretches until your condition gets better. In the future, I will write about treating neck and shoulder pain with pain-free and gentle exercises.

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Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this post helpful. 

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