Strengthening your neck

Exercise is important during all stages of recovery from neck pain. Different types of exercises will be used by your physical therapist as you get better. In the early stages, when your neck is still quite painful, specific exercises may be suggested to help reduce your pain. Supporting your neck in certain positions as suggested by your therapist can take pressure off sore or injured areas. These positions are sometimes easier to get into by using a pillow, rolled towel, or commercial neck roll. You may need to relax back on a recliner or mattress for best results. In cases of significant pain, you may be given a set of breathing exercises. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing helps air to reach even the lower lobes of your lungs. Combining deep breathing to a slow relaxing count can help muscles relax, while bringing much needed oxygen to sore tissues. Neck pain can be physically and emotionally draining. Relaxation exercises may not correct your problem, but they can help control pain and its accompanying stress.

Movement is also important, even when your neck is still painful. Careful movements suggested by your therapist can safely ease pain by providing nutrition and lubrication to injured and sore areas. Movement of joints and muscles also signals the nervous system to block incoming pain. Common movement exercises include active range of motion, in which you are encouraged to move your neck toward directions that don't hurt. Your therapist will evaluate which movements will be safest and best for you. In some cases, pain will ease with the addition of pressure into one or another direction. Again, your therapist will need to determine which movements are best for your condition. Avoid movements that hurt or seem to irritate the soreness in your neck.

As your neck becomes less painful, the exercises will be changed to focus on improving the overall health of your neck. These changes will focus on exercises for:

  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Coordination
  • Aerobic conditioning

Exercises that increase flexibility help to reduce pain and make it easier to keep your neck and spine in a healthy position. Tight muscles cause imbalances in spinal movements. This can make injury of these structures more likely. Flexibility exercises for the neck, chest, and upper shoulders can be helpful in establishing safe movement. A slow progression of stretching exercises can increase flexibility in these areas, ease pain, and reduce the chance of reinjury.

The next stage of exercise focuses on the strength of the muscles that support the neck. These muscles help bring the spine into a safe position--and keep it there! Trained muscles can keep your neck healthy by getting it into better posture. A series of strengthening exercises, called stabilization training, is a way to get better balance in the muscles around your neck, chest, and upper back. These stabilization exercises are helpful in supporting your neck in safe positions while you are working or when you are doing other daily activities. Strengthening and stabilization exercises are simple to do at home and don't have to require any expensive equipment. By practicing these exercises often, you will become comfortable keeping your neck in healthy positions and postures with all your activities.

Strong muscles need to be coordinated. As the strength of the spinal muscles increases, it becomes important to train those muscles to work together. Learning any physical activity takes practice. Muscles must be trained so that the physical activity is under control. Muscles that are trained to control safe movement of the spine help reduce the chance of injury. You will be taught exercises to help train your neck, chest, and upper back muscles to work together in protecting your spine.

Finally, attention will be directed to increasing your overall fitness. The word aerobic means "with oxygen". By using oxygen as they work, muscles are better able to move continuously, rather than in spurts. Fitness training allows the muscles to become more efficient at obtaining nutrients and oxygen from the blood. As the muscles use up the nutrients and oxygen, chemical waste products are created that can cause pain. Training also increases the ability of muscles to get rid of these waste products.

Exercise has other benefits as well. Vigorous exercise can cause chemicals called endorphins to be released into the blood. These chemical hormones act as natural pain relievers in reducing your pain. It will be important that you pick an aerobic activity you can enjoy and stick with it!

Once your pain is controlled, your range of motion is improved, and your strength is returning, you will be progressed to a final home program. Your therapist will give you some ideas to help take care of any more soreness at home. You'll be given some ways to keep working on the range of motion and strength too. Before you are done with physical therapy, more measurements will be taken to see how well you're doing now compared to when you first started in therapy.

Credits & Documentation references

Section: 
Post-Operation Exercises