About 15% of US adults endure the misery of neck pain at some point each year. When neck pain occurs, the sufferer will do almost anything to get relief—whether it’s popping strong painkillers, paying for massages or seeing a chiropractor.
While these and other approaches may be appropriate in some cases, one of the most effective—but underutilized—therapies for neck pain is yoga. Almost all causes of neck pain, including arthritis, can benefit from yoga, which is a great adjunct to medical treatment. It is also helpful to relieve neck pain stemming from poor posture.
Why yoga? Key yoga moves not only stretch tight muscles and strengthen weak ones, but also help create proper body alignment and posture—crucial steps in both preventing and treating neck pain.
To alleviate neck pain and keep it from coming back, practice these steps every day—but be sure to see your doctor first if you’re experiencing severe pain…*
HOLD YOUR HEAD RIGHT
The adult head weighs about 10 pounds—roughly the same as a medium-weight bowling ball. So it is important to correctly balance that weight to avoid strain on the neck.
Many daily activities, including sitting at a desk, working at a computer and talking and texting on the phone, cause our shoulders to round…bodies to lean forward…and heads to protrude in front of the shoulders. This posture puts extreme pressure and tension on the neck and shoulders.
What to do: For correct head posture whether sitting or standing, your ears should be directly over your shoulders and your shoulders directly over your hips. Check yourself several times a day to make sure you’re doing it. This posture may feel strange to you when you first try it, but learning to keep your head balanced over your shoulder girdle can make you feel better and will eventually seem natural.
CHECK FOR “BODY ARMOR”
When stressed, many people tighten the muscles in the upper back, shoulders and neck. As this physical response becomes habitual, we develop a “body armor” of tight, overused muscles in the neck and shoulders. The pattern becomes so ingrained that we don’t even notice that we hold this tension constantly in our bodies.
To break this cycle, it’s important to consciously consider how tension is affecting your neck muscles.
What to do: Set your wristwatch alarm or phone alarm to sound once every waking hour. When you hear the alarm, take a moment to identify any areas of discomfort or tension in your body, including your back, shoulders and neck. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax these muscles. With practice and patience, it is often possible to get substantial release of muscle tension.
Also helpful: Repeat a simple mantra, such as “Lips together, teeth apart,” throughout the day to avoid clenching the teeth and help relax the jaw, a common site where tension resides. Jaw tightness often radiates downward and exacerbates neck pain.
STRETCH AND STRENGTHEN
Don’t worry if you have never done yoga—these are easy poses that will improve your body alignment and gently stretch the shoulders and neck. Practice the following yoga poses throughout the day, while at your desk, a table, while waiting for coffee to brew, etc. The seated mountain pose can be done anytime you’re sitting. The other poses can be done once a day. It should take about five minutes to do them all.
Seated mountain pose. What to do: Sit tall in your chair, with your feet on the floor. Use your hands to gently move the fleshy part of your buttocks aside and allow your “sit bones”—the two rounded knobs at the base of your pelvis—to press down onto the chair seat.
Extend the crown of your head up toward the sky, lengthening your spine. Relax your shoulders down away from your ears, and let your hands rest on your thighs. Be sure your chin is parallel to the ground and neither tilted up nor tucked in.
What helps: Imagine that you have a headlight in the center of your chest at your breastbone—and shine that light forward. Relax your face, and look straight ahead. Linger here for five to 10 slow, easy breaths.
Shoulder shrugs. What to do: Inhale and lift your shoulders up toward your ears and then exhale as you drop them down. Repeat five to 10 times, moving with the breath—inhale as you lift, then exhale (with a sigh if you like) as you release. Be sure to keep your arms as relaxed as possible.
Shoulder circles. What to do: Lift your shoulders straight up as high as they will comfortably go. Then bring them behind you as far as is comfortable. Next, release the shoulders down toward your hips, then bring them forward as far as you comfortably can and finish the circle by bringing them up toward your ears.
Continue circling your shoulders, and avoid holding your breath. Let the movement be easy and get as much motion as possible in your shoulders. Circle five times in this direction, then circle five times in the opposite direction. When you’ve finished, relax your shoulders and take three to five easy breaths.
Head turn. What to do: Inhale and extend the crown of your head toward the sky. Exhale and turn your head as far to the right as comfortably possible, keeping your shoulders still. Allow your eyes to turn also so you can look toward whatever is behind you. Inhale and turn back to center. Exhale and turn to the left. Repeat the set three to six times, moving with the breath.
Ear to shoulder. What to do: Sit tall with your hands on your thighs. Inhale and lift the crown of your head toward the sky. Then exhale and drop your right ear down toward your right shoulder, trying not to lift that shoulder toward the ear. Keep your left shoulder down and relax the left side of your neck.
Keep your breath flowing as you take your left hand off your thigh and let your left arm dangle at your side. Stay in this pose for a few breaths while relaxing. Bring your head back to the center and pause. Then repeat on the other side.
*Check with your physician before doing any physical activity, including yoga poses, if you have neck pain that is accompanied by numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand…the pain was caused by an injury or accident…you have swollen glands or a lump in your neck…or you have difficulty swallowing or breathing.