Exercises to Help Relieve and Treat Neck Pain

Driver Suffering From Whiplash After Traffic Collision, holding his neck

Over the past year, I have been a part of a team researching the best care for an individual with neck pain. We reviewed the American Physical Therapy Association‘s published clinical practice guideline (CPG), which is basically a summary for the best possible treatment for individuals with neck pain.

For the purpose of this blog, I will be recommending exercises that you could begin at home. Please note: Hands-on or manual therapy was strongly recommended from this guideline, so if you are attempting exercises on your own and not making progress, a referral to physical therapist (PT) may be necessary.

It’s important to note that all of these diagnoses and associated time frames include other interventions that may require further assessment. This blog should serve as a guide and a place to start if you are experiencing neck pain. As always, speak with a health care provider before beginning an exercise program. Make sure you feel comfortable with each exercise you perform and that the exercises do not cause increased pain!

To decide which exercises and interventions may work best for you, it is first important to have an accurate diagnosis. The CPG breaks down 4 diagnoses based on symptoms and then recommends best intervention mthods to improve that condition.


Neck Pain with Lack of Mobility

Some symptoms may include pain to one side of the neck, limited range of motion and/or pain when you move as far as possible and arm/shoulder pain. The following exercises may help you with range of motion and recovery:

Acute Phase
Symptoms for less than a month

Remain active with normal exercises that do not cause pain.

Subacute Phase
Symptoms for 1-3 months

Chronic Phase
Symptoms for 3+ months

If you’ve had symptoms for 1-3 months, you may need the following exercises:


Neck Pain with Movement Coordination Impairments

This type of pain is more common if the injury is traumatic and involves whiplash (from a motor vehicle accident, for instance). Some symptoms will included generalized neck pain with possible shoulder/scapular pain, neck pain with mid range of motion that increases when you move as far as possible and decreased strength in your neck muscles (such as difficulty holding your head up).

If you have suffered a car accident, but testing has concluded that there is no damage to your neck, the following exercises may help:

Acute Phase
Symptoms for less than a month

Avoid rounding your shoulders forward and holding your head in the forward position.

Subacute Phase
Symptoms for 1-3 months

Avoid rounding your shoulders forward and holding your head in the forward position. If you find yourself in this posture, you may want to refer to the Stretches handout for appropriate exercises.

Chronic Phase
Symptoms for 3+ months

Stay active and do not avoid movement.


Neck Pain with Radiating Pain

The symptoms are fairly easy to identify and would include shooting pain and/or numbness and tingling in an involved arm. You may also notice strength loss in that arm and may have difficulty rotating your head to that side. In my opinion, these individuals may be better off seeking medical attention rather than treating with a home exercises program. However, the following exercises may help as tolerated (exercises should not be painful or increase symptoms).


Neck Pain with Headache

The symptoms we would expect to see in physical therapy would be one sided neck pain that is not continuous. The headache may increase by sustained postures or certain movements. We may also see decreased range of motion and loss of strength in the neck muscles.

Acute and Subacute phases
Symptoms up to 3 months

Activity should not increase pain; exercise as normal


Again, this blog is just a guide. Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise program and that you are fully comfortable with each exercise you perform.

I encourage you to ask questions, share your experience and leave suggestions for future topics in the comments below. I will do my best to respond to each as timely as possible!

Special thanks: Without the following physical therapists’ expertise and work, this blog entry would not be possible, so a big thank you to Caroline Booth, Stephen Brown, JoAnna Hartman, Amy Jackson, Holly Knisely and Michael Studnicka.

imageBryon Renwand, PT, DPT, CSCS, has been working with ProMedica Total Rehab since 2012, and is currently seeing patients at Total Rehab of Bedford, Mich. Bryon received his Bachelors of Science in Exercise Science from the University of Toledo, where he also received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy. 

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