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Why Does My Neck Hurt When Stretching It?

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

The punch line to this question is simply that after 25 years of working with patients on such a common problem of neck pain, most people tend to create more harm than good when attempting to stretch their neck muscles.

Why is my neck stiff anyway?

All tissue in the body can become stiffer when not used to its full and normal capacity. Simply, if we don't use it we lose it.

The neck is made up of 7 cervical bones that are connected together by discs, ligaments, tendons and layers and layers of muscles. Each cervical bone connected to the next has several points of connection like a beautifully intricate and delicate puzzle. There are very small spaces in between the joints where nerves and blood vessels live and need space.

When we move our head around looking to the right and left and up and down the many joints big and small need to be freely moving on themselves as well as the several layers of muscles and tendons lengthening and shortening. Many things can create a reduction in range of motion, or stiffness. Both muscles and joints can be the source of this stiffness.

The biggest error I see people make when attempting to stretch any muscles, especially the neck, is not knowing or understanding what the object of the stretch is and what they are supposed to be feeling. When the person doesn't know what they should be feeling, where they should feel it and what to expect after the stretch the often create more problems than they are solving. This is easy to do in the neck because the joints are vulnerable and delicate when put in the muscle stretching positions.

Most people end up trying to stretch neck muscles at the expense of causing some painful irritation to the neck joints and then end up getting stiffer and their problem is not solved or even make worse.

To make a very broad generalization for the neck, if I attempt to stretch to the right as in bringing my right ear to my right shoulder I should feel a gentle and broad stretching sensation on the left side of my neck.

I need to ask myself....

Where do I feel something? if the answer is on the left I am on the right track. If the answer is on the right I need to stop. If I am stretching the neck toward the right and I feel a uncomfortable sensation on the right chances are I am causing some type of potentially damaging compression on the right

What do I feel? if the answer is a gentle stretching sensation I am on the right track. If the answer is pain anywhere in the central area of the neck I need to stop.

Sometimes a person's unique flexibility and movement ability is such that the joints stop the movement before the muscle stretch does. When this is the case it may not be possible to effectively and safely stretch the neck muscles while keeping the joints safe. This person may require some specific modifications to make the stretch safe and effective.

How to Safely Stretch The Upper Trapezius

The upper trapezius is the most commonly prescribed neck stretch. Here are a few pointers to make this stretch safe and effective.

  1. Start with good posture and anchor the left shoulder by gently holding the bottom of the chair.

  2. Slowly look down, tip the right ear to the right shoulder, slowly rotate the chin up toward the ceiling.

  3. Slowly lean to the right to create an increase in the stretching sensation.

  4. Where do I feel stretching? left side of neck

  5. What do I feel? broad stretching sensation along left neck toward shoulder.

  6. It is almost never necessary to use the right hand to give more stretching force as I often see people do.

  7. Hold 15 seconds

  8. Return to the starting position and gently move head to the right and left

If you are unable to perform without feeling pinching pain or stiffness on the right side more localised in the mid neck you likely have too much joint stiffness or joint pain on the right to perform this stretch safely.

If this is the case for you a physical therapist can help you identify why your neck is stiff and develop strategies and exercises specific to your unique, beautifully made neck.

What Do I Do If I Can Not Feel The Stretching On The Correct Side?

If you try this sequence of stretching and positioning and you continue to get pinching type pain on the side you are turning or sidebending toward AND you do not feel stretching on the side you are stretching away from you should stop. This means that either you are not positioning perfectly or your neck just isn't ready for that stretch.

You should then try other methods of pain relief to prepare the muscle and joints to be able to. tolerate the positioning.

Heat is often used as a way to relax muscles, bring circulation to the area and prepare muscles and joints to be stretched. Here is a heating pad I like because it can cover a very large portion of the trapezius and levator scapula muscles in an attempt to relax them.

Want more information?

Download my Free Guide: Four Tips to Heal Your Achy Neck and Upper Back

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