Neck pain – Causes & Exercises

Do you suffer from neck pain and do not know what to do about it?

Have you already tried things, but so far without success? Does your pain keep recurring?

You don’t understand this and may wonder: “Why me?” You just want to know why your neck hurts and what you can do about it!

I want to try to shed some light on the problem and assist you with self-help.

On this page I will explain what causes may underlie a painful neck and show you exercises that really help!

There are ways and means.

Believe me, there are very often ways and means to help yourself, and it may be easier than you think.

Perhaps your search has been unsuccessful so far, and you have a hard time imagining how this site can help you.

Let me encourage you to stick around and give me a few minutes of your time. You will definitely learn something new!

Tension often plays a central role when it comes to neck pain, and you can get rid of this tension on your own by doing a self-massage.

Maybe you have never heard of this before, and it might seem a bit strange to massage yourself, but thousands of people have already been helped by it.

If you don’t have much time and want to convince yourself of the effect of such massages right away, then click on exercises in the content list and skip the rest of this page.

There are articles that will help you get rid of shoulder and neck tension or a stiff neck.

1. Neck pain causes

Neck pain can have many causes, however, in less than 1% of all cases it is caused by serious illnesses.

A visit to the doctor cannot hurt.

And, it is recommended to see one -especially if the pain is very intense and spreads down your arm, extends along your entire spine, or is accompanied by fever and a headache.

Below I have listed common causes and triggers for pain in the neck, and divided them according to orthopaedic degenerative, psychological and “everyday” causes.

Muscles are the main trigger for neck pain, or at least contribute massively to it. The reason for this is that they respond to numerous stimuli and contract accordingly.

In this case, it means that not only can they trigger pain, but they also respond to it, usually by contracting more.

After reading this chapter you will understand the important role your muscles play.

You will understand why relaxing the muscles can also alleviate pain although structural issues such as osteoarthritis are either blamed, or actually are the cause.

Note: Muscles are usually the trigger for the pain, but rarely are they the cause. The cause lies in that which overloads your muscles!

1.1 Orthopaedic causes

A variety of diseases and injuries can lead to neck pain. Below are examples of common causes.

  • Arthrosis: Wear of the articular cartilage of two connected bones.
  • A slipped disc: Prolapsed vertebral disc material with compression of the spinal canal (rarely) and/or the nerve roots (very often).
  • Scheuermann’s disease: The formation of a round back in adolescence due to the stunting of individual vertebrae.
  • Spinal Stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal.

In each of the above cases structural changes have occurred, which may be perceived by the body as a threat and can cause pain.

In addition, the muscle tension in each of the above cases can be so strong that (even more) pain occurs. This can be happen in various ways.

1.1.1 Increased muscle tension due to pain

If you experience pain in a certain area of your body, then as a rule, the muscles there tense themselves to a certain extent. Muscles respond to pain by increased contractions.

Take the time to observe yourself

Observe how you move when you feel pain, and how your body tension changes.

Or pay attention to your physical reaction if you see someone get seriously injured. Often you feel with that person, sometimes you can actually feel the pain yourself.

Pain over a longer period, i.e. persistent pain, can cause severe muscle tension and lead to trigger points.

Tension, like trigger points, can cause pain and/or contribute to existing pain.

1.1.2 Change in muscle tension and the formation of trigger points due to incorrect posture and compensating movements

If we suffer from pain, then we change our physical activity patterns and postures. We try to avoid pain, and to get around it.

We position ourselves so that we feel the least pain and avoid movements that reinforce it.

We do not use the full range of motions in our joints and muscles, and as such are burdening them in an unnatural way.

This way joints are less burdened in certain areas, than in others areas, which leads to irregular wear. Premature or faster joint degeneration (joint disease, etc.) is the result, possibly accompanied by pain.

Muscles are also not being taken through their full range of motion when carrying out compensation movements (full extension or shortening), resulting in a more or less permanent shortening or lengthening of the muscle.

Think of it as a telescope pole that you only minimally pull apart, or push together.

Think of it as a telescopic pole that you only minimally pull apart, or push together.

The continuous contraction or extension of a muscle is among the most common causes of tension and trigger points.

As I mentioned earlier, this can trigger pain or contribute to it.

When it comes to poor posture not caused by pain but by diseases (Scheuermann’s disease for example), the same principle applies: Due to the altered joint position, specific muscle groups are constantly contracted, and others extended.

Take the example of the round back due to Scheuermann’s disease; the muscles of the chest and abdomen are in a contracted/shortened position, while large parts of the back are extended/stretched.

As you can see, muscles, even with structural problems, can contribute to pain as well as be affected by it.

1.2 Psychological/emotional causes

Neck pain may also have its origin in our mind. Again, our muscles play a major role here.

Thoughts lead to emotions, emotions to conscious or unconscious movements, and movements are caused by muscle activity.

As such, muscles are a mirror to your thoughts and feelings in a way.

Be aware that muscle activity is not only necessary for climbing a staircase, but also for moving your eyes, speaking, digesting, pumping the blood through your vessels, breathing, and so on.

Take the time to observe…

  • What happens to your stomach when you feel anger;
  • How you breathe when you are afraid;
  • What happens to your heartbeat when you are excited;
  • How your forearms and hands tense up when you argue;
  • How your shoulder and neck areas tense when “your stress sits in your neck”.

Stress usually leads to increased alertness in the body. It activates a part of the nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system), which also leads to the reduction of the flow of saliva and an increase in muscle tension in addition to an increase in heart rate.

If we have enough ways to overcome stress with moderate effort, we can refer to it as “positive stress”.

However, stress can also quickly be negative.

For many individuals, negative stress triggers neck pain.

It arises when someone can no longer deal with a (life) situation. They run out of ways to solve the situation, and feel overwhelmed.

It does not matter whether the problems are financial, difficult work-place relations, relationship problems, or family disputes.

The stimulus, the situation and the problem itself, goes from being a challenge to overload.

The challenge becomes overload

1.2.1 Stress and the body’s patterns of self-protective responses

We often react to overload with aversion and negative thought processes and emotions.

Our body reacts — it wants to protect us. To do this, it tightens muscles that flex our joints. That’s a defence pattern, which leads to the foetal position when fully expressed.

We protect the face, neck, and our vulnerable organs and place our hard shins and back to the outside.

The chest and abdominal muscles also tighten. This results in a “round” back, and the extension of the muscles located there stretches them.

The strain induced in the back can easily spread to the neck, given that some of the muscles in then neck are directly connected to those in the back.

If the stress remains, the patterns of self-protective responses, which were triggered by our perception of things and caused by our thoughts and feelings, also remain.

If you have gotten this far on this page, it is superfluous to explain that this can be an origin of muscular problems.

To put it simply, mental stress also leads to muscle tension.

Mental stress also leads to muscle tension.

1.3 Muscle tension in the neck due to everyday stress

Up to now, I have explained how orthopaedic diseases and your psyche can impact your muscles and trigger neck pain.

There are of course other causes, and these can be found in your everyday life.

Mots of regular habits can trigger muscle tension in the neck.

My objective is to help you understand why they may cause problems in your muscles.

Therefore, I will again sum up a few key factors that can lead to muscle strain.

In my opinion, the following three points are the most common triggers for pain and tension in the neck:

  • Permanent contraction or extension of the muscles (very common).
  • Active overload of the muscles (often).
  • Trauma & considerable external forces on the muscles (less frequently).

These points especially cause strain when:

  • Your muscles are poorly trained or weak.
  • Your muscles are not used to the load.
  • Or, they are given too little time to adapt.
  • There are no compensatory activities (self-massage, relaxation, etc.)
  • They are accompanied by other possible causes (stress, disease, accidents, etc.)

1.3.1 Persistent contraction/shortening or extension:

If a muscle is held in the same position for a long time (minutes to hours), or hardly moves, it can overburden the muscle and cause tension and trigger points.

In everyday life there are often unfavourable habits:

  • Prolonged sitting with arms in front of the body (muscles shortened in the chest, extended in the back, and shortened at the nape of the neck).
  • The table or the back of the chair is too high (shoulder and neck area are shortened)
  • Holding the phone between the ear and shoulder (contraction of one muscle and extension of the other on the side of the neck)
  • Looking up for a long time
  • Reading in bed whilst lying on the side
  • Etc.

Problems may occur if you return the affected muscles to their “normal position” too quickly.

For example:

You sleep for an hour in your chair or in the car, and your head tilts to one side. Suddenly the phone rings, as you wake up, you move your head, and that is when it happens.

You get muscular stiffness in your neck and can no longer move your neck freely.

What helps?

  • Take regular breaks and move more frequently.
  • Move your head slowly back into a normal position if you had to keep it in a particular position for longer than usual.
  • Loosen your muscles with self-massages and gentle stretching.

1.3.2 Active overload:

Active overloads especially occur with sports activities; however, they also in everyday life, and can lead to muscle tension in the neck.

Either the muscle overload is due to unusual or excessive tension, or less intense, but recurring strain.

Most of these occur in sports.

  • Breathing during breaststroke or freestyle swimming.
  • Looking up (volleyball, climbing, etc.).
  • Lifting extremely heavy weights (deadlifting).
  • Excessive training of the muscles in the neck.
  • Etc.

What helps?

  • Specific warm ups.
  • Respecting long enough recovery times.
  • Gradually and slowly increasing the intensity of exercises.
  • Loosening the muscles after training (self-massage and gentle stretching).
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Etc.

1.3.3 Trauma & external forces

We are not always in control when it comes to accidents and external forces that can severely overload your muscles.

Most of the time they are pulled apart abruptly and stretched to breaking point, or there is an external force.

An example of rapid stretching would be a whiplash or a fall on the head. In both cases, certain muscles of your cervical spine are pulled apart very quickly.

Severe external forces, for example, are when an object hits you at high speed in the neck. That would be like getting hit in the neck with a stone or a tennis ball.

2. Neck pain – What to do?

What can you yourself do for neck pain?

Generally speaking, it involves loosening tight muscles, finding the cause of the tension and stopping it.

2.1 Relaxation: Why is a self-massage so important?

Excessive muscle tension can be reduced by certain relaxation exercises.

Very often, however, there are also trigger points in the muscles involved, and these are beyond the control of the nervous system.

As such, relaxation exercises, which work on the nervous system, will no longer produce the desired results.

The trigger points must be tracked down and massaged. I will show you how this works in the two articles in the next section of this page.

2.2 Control the root causes

Try to eliminate the causes that lead to the development of tension and trigger points that are specific to you.

If you don’t do this, they will return again and again and constantly cause new problems.

Self-massage can indeed provide relief, but most often this is only temporary.

There are, of course, certain things you will have no influence on. You can’t reverse arthrosis or stenosis on your own, but you can effectively mitigate the pain.

Self-massages allow you to reduce the tension of your muscles and eliminate trigger points.

Less tension and trigger points usually means less pain, and of course, less strain on the joints.

This in turn helps to slow down the progression of arthrosis, for example.

3. Neck pain exercises

Below are two articles that will help you to relieve tension in the neck and shoulder region, or even a stiff neck.

4. Massagers that help relieve muscle tension in the neck

Which massage tool can you use for muscle tensions in the neck?

You can do massages with your fingers, a massage ball or the Trigger Fairy.

You can find lots of information and tips for using these tools on this website.

In principle, your fingers or a tennis ball are adequate. That means you do not have to purchase any massage tools. You can try out the self-massages without spending any money.

However, it makes sense to get a massage ball and/or the Trigger Fairy.

Your fingers get tired quickly when doing a self-massage, which then can manifest as strain injuries.

This is likely to be the case if you do not have strong and resilient fingers, like those of craftspeople.

And even in their case–or especially in their case–their fingers already tend to be heavily strained by their work.

Hence, in my opinion it makes sense to use a massage ball and massage stick.

With the Trigger Fairy you can reach the entire neck and shoulder area, and can do massage without tensing yourself.

A massage ball helps freeing the chest and shoulder areas of stubborn tension, thanks to the possibility of extremely intense massage (if it is necessary or desirable).

And, it can also be used on many other parts of the body.

With the Trigger Fairy and a massage ball you will be perfectly equipped for doing self-massages on your entire upper body.

Both of these devices are very small and you can take them with you anywhere.

This is useful when you want to relax at the office, on a plane or after a long drive.

I would like to thank for reading my site and personally wish you a relaxed neck!

References

  • Butler, David S. & Moseley, Lorimer G. Schmerzen verstehen. Heidelberg: Springer Medizinverlag, 2009.
  • Debrunner, Alfred M. Orthopädie Orthopädische Chirurgie. Patientenorientierte Diagnostik und Therapie des Bewegungsapparates. Bern: Verlag Hans Huber, 2005.
  • Krämer, Jürgen. & Grifka, Joachim. Orthopädie Unfallchirurgie. Heidelberg: Springer Medizinverlag, 2007.
  • Simons, David G., Lois S. Simons, & Janet G. Travell. Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1999. Print.