Neck tightness and how you can fix it!

Neck tightness: what is it, where does it come from and how can you fix it?

There are many causes of neck pain, and these can come from any of architecture of the neck, or cervical, region. The pain can come from bones, intervertebral discs (which sit between the bones in our necks), the nerves that come out from the spinal cord and even just the muscles that support the neck. Stiffness or tightness can be associated with pain, but can also occur independent of pain. If you have pain in your neck or down your arm it is best to get it assessed by a physio to truly identify what the underlying cause may be. However, if simple neck tightness is all you’re experiencing, it may be something you could improve with some simple lifestyle changes and exercises.

Tightness is caused by an increase in tension in a muscle, which causes a restriction in the movement of your neck. This could be due to posture, overuse and/or weakness in the muscle. Muscles tend to tighten up when they aren’t strong enough to do whatever it is you’re trying to do with them. This might be that you’re sitting at the computer with your screen too low and the muscles in the back of your neck tighten up to hold your head in a position to see the screen. Or perhaps you’ve started back at the gym, increased your weights and as you’re fatiguing you start to recruit the muscles in your neck instead of your arms. Once the muscles tighten up they restrict movement (often rotating your head or tilting to one side becomes stiff).

Another common cause of neck tightness is tummy sleeping. When you sleep on your front your head is turned to one side. Given we sleep around 7-9 hours a night that’s a long time to keep your neck in a stretched position. Tightness caused by tummy sleeping is usually worse in the morning, straight after you get out of bed.

Your neck is made up of deep and superficial muscles. This means that some muscles lie close to the surface of the skin and others lie underneath those muscles. The role of the superficial muscles is to facilitate movement (turning and tilting the head, as well as looking up and down). The role of the deep muscles is stability, they hold the weight of your head up and allow for controlled movement of the neck by the superficial muscles. However, when the deep muscles aren’t strong enough, the superficial muscles end up tightening up to stabilise the head. Therefore, it’s important to strengthen the deep muscles in the neck to allow the superficial muscles to do their job, rather than stabilising the head. It is common for the deep muscles to become inhibited following a neck injury and they often need to be retrained to work properly again.

How can you fix it?

  • Watch your technique in the gym – make sure you stop if you notice your neck muscles starting to take over.
  • Release tight superficial muscles with a massage ball – common tight spots include the muscles between the tip of your shoulder and your neck or the muscles between your shoulder blade and your spine. Try using a massage ball against a wall to release these muscles (roll around until your find a sore spot, then hold it on that spot for 30-45 seconds and you should feel the muscle release)
  • Strengthen the deep neck flexors – lie on your back with a small pillow under your head. Feel the muscles in the front of your neck, these should stay completely relaxed as you do this exercise. Gently tuck your chin down to lengthen the back of your neck. You can imagine making a very small double chin. You should feel like you’re not doing much but the deep muscles should be working to do this movement. If it feels difficult, you’re probably doing it incorrectly! Hold for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times. As you build endurance, you should be able to build up to 10 x 10 second holds. And most importantly, complete these exercises EVERY day.
  • Sleep on your back or side – avoid putting your head in a rotated position by lying on your back or side instead of your front.
  • Check your desk set up – as a starting point, the top of your screen should be at the level of your eyes. This will ensure you aren’t tilting your head too far down.

Stretching your neck is addressing the symptoms, not the cause. It might provide some relief but it will most likely tighten back up again. It will be more beneficial to address why it’s happening in the first place and the best option for this is to improve your strength. If you feel like you aren’t getting the hang of the exercises or you just can’t shake the tightness, speak to one of our physiotherapists at Instinct Health about how you can get on top of it. Often, we see lots of clients who want to start Clinical Pilates for neck stiffness!

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Neck tightness and how you can fix it!