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5 Ways to Relieve Neck Pain

5 Ways to Relieve Neck Pain

Neck pain and tension is one of the most common issues my clients deal with on a daily basis. The symptoms of neck tension often include headaches, difficulty turning the neck, numbness and tingling down the arm, lack of shoulder strength, lack of forearm strength and grip strength and could potentially impair your vision.

The reason why all those symptoms can be prevalent is due to the nerve structure stemming from your cervical spine. The images below shows how the nerves are innervated along the cervical spine and into the muscles. If a muscle becomes too tight, it can compress the nerve and disrupt the communication between the brain and the nerve.

nerve innervation

front neck nerve innervation

Note that the images shown have layers of muscles removed which is why the nerves look like they are floating. You can see from the images why it’s important to keep your neck muscles as functional as possible in order to prevent any nerve signal disruption.

I have listed 5 ways to relieve neck pain and tension. Although there are more ways to relieve neck pain, these ways are ones that I find to be most effective.

Use a Heating Pad

As long as there is no pain, heat can be very effective in relieving neck tension. The heat from the heating pad can give a soothing, relaxing effect to the muscle and myofascial tissue. The great thing about myofascial tissue (connective tissue that’s wrapped around every muscle fiber and muscle group) is that it can be loosened when heat is applied or generated.

There are so many of you that not only have muscle tightness, but have very tightly woven myofascia as well. Overly tight connective tissue will always cause muscle imbalance and postural distortion. Prolonged muscle imbalance or postural distortion can and often does lead to pain.

A good thing to remember is that heat is best used when dealing with achy or tense muscles, cold is best to use when there is acute pain. Using heat on painful areas can often exacerbate the pain. There will already be heat and inflammation present if there is pain and adding additional heat can just make it worse.  Conversely with cold, the cold will reduce the inflammation in a painful area and reduce the amount of heat in the area.

This is why cold is used for pain and heat is used for tension and aches.

heating pad for neck tension

Use a theracane or lacrosse ball


As I have mentioned in several other posts, theracanes and lacrosse balls are great tools to use for myofascial release and trigger point release. If you are someone that experiences regular headaches, I can almost guarantee you have active trigger points in some of your neck muscles.  Look at the charts below and you’ll see that many of the trigger point referral patterns refer to the head. These are the areas you’ll want to focus on especially if you do get frequent headaches.

traps trigger point referral

Trapezius: Very common area for neck pain and tension, also tension headaches. Trigger points in this muscle can also cause your jaw to tense up if it’s been present for a long period of time. The trapezius has actions at the scapula, neck, and shoulder joint. It’s the one muscle group where several of you hold your stress.

splenius cervicis trigger point referral

Splenius Cervicis:–Deep neck muscle that can refer pain to the side of the head in the temporalis region when trigger points are active.

scm trigger point referral

Sternocleidomastoid: This muscle does a lot of work. It anteriorly flexes, laterally flexes, and rotates the neck. If you’re someone that looks down at a computer screen all day, this muscle is likely to be over-tight. In the diagram above you can see some of the common trigger point referrals. These trigger points can be palpated best by using your fingers and grabbing a hold of the muscle.

splenius capitus trigger point referral

Splenius Capitus: This muscle lies underneath the trapezius and alongside the splenius cervicis. Trigger point referral can cause pain on top of the head.

occipital trigger point referral

Occipitals: The occipitals are also a very common area for tension headaches. These muscles are often the first ones I palpate when a client comes in with a headache. The interesting thing about this muscle is that not only does it move the scalp back, it also elevates the eyebrows. So if you raise your eyebrows, this muscle activates. If you feel your headache around the eyes, place some pressure on these muscles with a lacrosse ball or theracane.

suboccipital trigger point referral

Suboccipitals: Below the occipital bone are the suboccipitals (sub meaning below)Suboccipital muscles are a group of 6 muscles which flex the neck anteriorly and laterally and some of the muscles extend the neck. This muscle group almost always has tension as it is very active throughout the day.


neck tension release with lacrosse ball trigger point release with theracane

As you can see, trigger points can be and often times are the primary source or reason for pain in the neck. Use the tools to help relieve neck pain and tension and use them regularly.


Use Cupping therapy

If you have never tried cupping therapy you are truly missing out. What the cups are used for is to promote blood flow, cell repair, myofascial release, muscle tension release and pain reduction. I constantly use cups on my neck and if you don’t mind have red cup marks on your neck, I highly suggest you try them out.

When using cups, what I like to do is press around on my neck to feel any tender or tense spots, then place the cups on those spots for 5-10 minutes. I also stretch my neck in various ways to feel for any pulling or restriction. If you are new to using cups I would recommend starting with leaving the cups on for 2 minutes, then assess the muscle to see if you notice a difference. If not, you can always place the cup on a little longer until you notice a difference.

cupping therapy

Stretch to Improve Neck Range of Motion

Think about all the different or not so different positions your neck is in throughout the day. The smallest turn of your head requires your neck muscles to activate. If you look down at a computer, phone or book all day, you have neck muscles that are being stretched and neck muscles that are being tightened.

The only way to lengthen the shortened muscles is to stretch the shortened muscles. Be sure to hold the stretches for at least 45-60 seconds and I would do these stretches at least 3 times a day depending on how often you are in a seated position throughout the day.

If you have ANY disc injuries to the cervical spine I would be very cautious of the level of stretching you do. Consult with your Doctor prior to doing any stretching or any strengthening for that matter. The last thing you would want is to cause further damage in your cervical spine!

Below are the common stretches for neck tension relief.

posterior neck stretch relieve neck pain stretch relieve neck tension stretch lateral neck stretch

Strengthen the Neck Muscles

Strengthening neck muscles is a must. If you have muscle imbalance within your neck you will undoubtedly have ongoing tension and pain. Strengthening the neck muscles will increase their endurance and allow the muscles to function properly.

These exercises are for the lateral, posterior and anterior neck muscles. Place a resistance band over something stable, like a pole of some sort, or something that will not fall over as you lean against it. Place the band over your head and lean against the resistance, keeping your muscles activated. Hold the position for 1 minute and repeat for 2 to 3 sets. If you notice any discomfort or pain developing in the neck, discontinue the exercise and use a theracane on that spot, it should help make the discomfort go away.

lateral banded neck exercise

posterior banded neck exercise

banded anterior neck exercise

Note: Along with strengthening the neck, you should also strengthen your upper back muscles.

For best results, I recommend first using heat (remember use only if the is no pain present), follow that up with using a theracane or lacrosse ball to relieve the tension knots and trigger points, THEN do the stretching and strengthening. Stretching should be done every day, strengthening at least 3 times a week.

Remember there can be no change without change!

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