With more time spent in front of a screen, a sore and tight neck is becoming more common. Thankfully, there are options for treatment, both at home and in-office. The two worst culprits for a sore, stiff neck are a sedentary lifestyle and poor sleeping habits. “We are meant to move often, so staying in any one position too long will eventually cause discomfort and physical adaptations that lead to dysfunction,” says Sean Joyce, a physical therapist with Hudson Medical and Wellness.
Although a stiff neck tends to resolve itself within a couple of days, it’s vital to treat prolonged stiffness from worsening. “Stiffness in the neck is quite common and is only abnormal if you feel it for a few days. Unresolved chronic neck stiffness may be the precursor for neck pain, pinched nerves, and lost range of motion,” says Sridhar Yalamanchili, a physical therapist with Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey.
Consulting with a healthcare provider to help evaluate your current level of function, identify the cause of your stiff neck, and put together a plan to get your back on track and out of pain is the best way to get rid of a sore, stiff neck. “In most cases, neck issues can be resolved without the need for invasive intervention, but timing is important, and the sooner you take action to stop your neck pain, the better your chances are. Consulting a physical therapist, chiropractor, or massage therapist is a great place to start,” says Joyce.
Keep reading for a list of ways to treat a sore, tight neck, according to our experts.
Try a Chest-Opener Exercise
“If you sit with your head and shoulders forward, lay on the ground or a foam roller and allow gravity to push them back in the opposite direction,” says Joyce.
- Position a foam roller lengthwise on the ground. Sit directly in front of the roller with your back toward it.
- Lie back slowly and carefully on the foam roller. Once your spine is laid out on the length of the foam roller, slide your heels towards your bottom.
- Extend your arms out to the sides, feeling your chest open.
- Stay in this position for 60 seconds or, if feeling comfortable enough, move slowly from side to side.
“If you round your lower back and have your hips flexed all day, perform some cobra push-ups to extend the lumbar spine and hips,” says Joyce.
- Lie on your stomach and separate your feet hip-width apart, place your hands under your shoulders, and spread your fingers, resting your forehead on the floor.
- Push into your hands and inhale, lifting your head, chest, and stomach. Your pelvis should remain in contact with the floor.
- Hold this pose and take 10 slow, deep breaths.
- Exhale and lower back to starting position.
Pick Up a Foam Roller
“A softer foam roll with a bit of a give is a handy tool for improving stiffness and maintaining muscles at an optimal length,” says Yalamanchili.
- Lay the roll horizontally on the floor. Then lie down on the foam roll so it rests just under the shoulder blade region.
- Slowly roll your body back and forth for up to 2 minutes, pausing at areas that feel a bit sore or tight.
- Take a break and sit up.
- Now place the foam roll horizontally just above the shoulder blades and focus on the area above the shoulder blades to the base of the neck. Work on this area for 2 minutes.
Try a Side-to-Side Neck Stretch
Yalamanchili suggests the following stretch to relieve neck tension that typically builds up with poor work and recreational postures.
- Sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Then drop your head sideways like you are trying to touch the ear to the shoulder.
- Use the same side arm to gently pull the head sideways, further causing a stretch in the neck muscles.
- Hold 15-20 seconds and repeat one more time. Reverse the sequence for the opposite side.
Or a Back of the Neck Stretch
- In the same seated position as above, gently tuck your chin in like you are creating a double chin.
- Look down slightly. Bring an arm behind your head and gently pull the head down to stretch the upper neck muscles.
- Hold 15-20 seconds and repeat a total of three times.
Don't Skimp on Mobility Work
“Moving throughout your body's full range of motion decreases the chance of having soft tissue and joint tightness that can lead to pain. It also helps strengthen postural muscles that build up your resilience to symptoms when spending prolonged time sitting at a desk,” says Joyce.
Try some dynamic movements such as bodyweight squats, arm circles, hip circles, neck rolls, and shoulder rolls.
Get a Movement Assessment
If your sore, stiff neck is due to training, you may need a movement assessment. Before adding volume and more weight to your workouts, be sure you are moving correctly.
“Many people have never been taught how to move properly, especially during athletic movements and weight training. When your movement patterns place stress on your neck, you put yourself on a direct route towards injury and dysfunction,” says Kolba.
Without intervention, your symptoms worsen, leading to dysfunction. Getting assessed by a professional will help set you back on the right course.
Try Massage Therapy
Massage therapy can work the soft tissues of the neck to relieve pain and reduce stress. Stress can cause us to tense our neck and shoulders, leading to stiffness and pain. By increasing relaxation with massage therapy, stress levels can decrease, and the habit of tensing and clenching may disappear.
Adjust Your Work Station
“Often overlooked is the way we do things for eight or more hours a day: the work set up. If unable to set up a proper workstation at home, most people would still benefit from simple ergonomic modifications,” says Yalamanchili.
Try the following:
- Use a yellow pages book or similar setup to ensure it is at eye level.
- Use a docking station for multiple monitors.
- Use a standup clipboard to place documents next to the screen to minimize the head's repetitive up and down motions.
- When using the keyboard and the mouse, ensure there is no tension on the shoulder muscles by keeping the elbows as close as you can to the body.
- Consider using a headset to avoid placing the phone receiver in the crook of the neck—this side bent and rotated position of the head can set one up for stiffness and pain, which responds poorly to stretching.
Make Sure You're Using the Right Pillow
“A pillow with a contour supports the natural curve in the neck is best,” says Yalamanchili. You do not need memory foam or fancy, expensive materials in your pillow. A simple modification Yalamanchili recommends placing a thin neck roll on the bottom of a regular pillow or sleeping with the neck roll directly under your neck. “As with any new change, give your body time to adjust,” says Yalamanchili.
What to Do if Your Neck Pain Doesn’t Go Away
A physical therapist or doctor should examine neck stiffness that doesn’t go away after two to three days. If your neck soreness worsens or is very painful, be sure to get checked out right away. Delaying care can cause more dysfunction.