4th June, 20205 min read

How to treat neck pain at home: Can exercises help?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Tomas Duffin
Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 05/06/2020
Medically reviewed

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If you suffer from neck pain you aren’t alone -- the problem is thought to affect between 10% and 20% of adults.

Common causes of neck pain include sleeping in an awkward position, bad posture and a neck injury.

More severe cases are caused by degenerative changes of the spine (osteoarthritis) and spinal injury.

If you're worried about your neck pain or it lasts longer than a few weeks, you should visit a doctor.

But there are many things you can do to improve a sore neck at home.

General ways to relieve neck pain

Neck pain usually goes away after a few weeks, but the following may help during this time:

  • medication to relieve the pain -- such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or rubbing ibuprofen gel on your neck
  • sleeping comfortably -- the best pillow for neck pain is low and firm
  • a heat pack or hot water bottle on your neck -- this can help to reduce the pain and any muscle spasms

What works best for treating neck pain?

Exercise is an effective way to treat neck pain. It’s the most important way to:

  • reduce stiffness and pain
  • build up muscle strength
  • improve flexibility and general fitness

A lack of exercise can weaken muscles, make pain persist and make it easier to strain the neck again.

It’s important to keep your neck moving -- unless a doctor tells you otherwise -- but there are different forms of exercise and some are more effective than others.

Sleeping position and neck pain

What’s the most effective form of exercise for treating neck pain?

Specific neck pain exercises

Strength training exercises are the most effective way to relieve neck pain, specifically ones that train the painful neck muscle.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy recommends the following exercises:

  • neck tilt (forward) -- tilt your head down to rest your chin on your chest. Gently tense your neck muscles and hold for 5 seconds. Return to normal position and repeat 5 times
  • neck stretch -- keeping the rest of the body straight, push your chin forward so your throat is stretched. Gently tense your neck muscles and hold for 5 seconds. Return to normal position and push your head backwards, keeping the chin up. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 5 times
  • neck tilt (side to side) -- tilt your head down towards your shoulder, leading with your ear. Gently tense your neck muscles and hold for 5 seconds. Return your head to centre and repeat on the other side. Repeat 5 times per side
  • neck turn -- turn your head towards one side, keeping your chin at the same height and moving within comfortable range. Gently tense your neck muscles and hold for 5 seconds. Return your head to centre and repeat on the other side. Repeat 5 times per side

You can also try other flexibility exercises that apply specifically to the neck.

Yoga and pilates

Multiple studies have found that yoga can be an effective way to manage neck pain. It seems to also improve how the neck muscles function.

Styles of yoga include:

  • ashtanga -- a modern form of classical Indian yoga
  • Iyengar -- this focuses on body alignment and uses equipment
  • sivananda -- this uses yoga postures but also focuses on the mind

Some styles are more vigorous than others and have a different emphasis such as breathing or posture. No style is necessarily better than the other for neck pain -- the important thing is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.

A 2018 study looking at the effects of yoga and pilates in people with neck pain found that both helped but pilates may be better as the range of exercises can increase neck muscle thickness when done consistently.

Pilates is made up of more than 500 exercises, of which 34 are mat exercises and the rest need machines or simple equipment such as hand weights.

Both types can be adapted to suit different levels of fitness and ability.

Get started in our guide to yoga or guide to pilates.

Yoga and neck pain

How quickly can I expect relief?

Following the specific neck pain exercises, your pain should ease within 2 weeks. But it’s important to follow the exercises for at least 6 to 8 weeks to prevent symptoms from returning.

Evidence suggests that yoga needs to be practiced on a regular basis for it to be effective as pain management.

When to see a doctor for neck pain

If you're worried about your neck pain, it lasts longer than a few weeks or painkillers have not worked, you should visit a doctor.

Other symptoms such as weakness or pins and needles in your hands or arms or a cold arm could be a sign of something more serious and you should see a doctor immediately.

If neck pain is affecting your everyday life and not going away, the doctor may refer you for physiotherapy to improve your strength and flexibility.

Find out more about the causes and treatments for neck pain or download the SpineWise desk exercise app, designed by an NHS spinal physiotherapist to treat neck pain.

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