Simple Home Exercises for Head and Neck Pain

by Craig Liebenson

Head and neck pain is very common. It is important to find a health care professional (HCP) who will aid you in answering the following questions:

1. What is causing the pain?
Neck pain can be due to poor posture or from a trauma such as an automobile accident. Many people have been told they have a herniated disc in their neck. Unfortunately, the presence of a herniated disc on an MRI is often coincidental since it occurs in an amazing 75% of the population (Boden 1990, Teresi 1987). It may be relevant, but it certainly is not always so. In fact, one scientist found that most cervical disc herniations regress with time without resorting to surgery (Bush 1997). Additionally, he found that the larger the disc herniation the more likely it is to spontaneously reabsorb. Therefore, don’t assume because you have a herniated disc that your neck can’t function normally.

One of the most consistent findings in neck pain and headache sufferers is reduced endurance of the deep muscles of the front of the neck (Barton 1996, Jull 1999, Jull 2000, Silverman 1991, Treleaven 1994, Watson 1993). Poor posture such as with your chin jutting out is an example of weakness of these deep muscles combined with increased tension in the superficial neck musculature (Jull 1999,Treleaven 1994). An excellent test your HCP should perform on you to see if this weakness is present is called the cervico-cranial flexion test (Liebenson, Jull 1999, 2000).

2. What can be done about the pain?

  1. What treatments are available?
    It is always a good idea to see a HCP who is trained in providing care for musculoskeletal disorders such as a chiropractor, physical therapist or orthopedist. Most patients DO NOT require surgery and can be helped by a conservative care program. A recent study showed that chronic neck pain patients benefit more from a combination of simple, low-technology exercises and spinal manipulation from a chiropractor than from either high-technology exercise or manipulation alone (Bronfort 2001). For additional pain relief over the counter or prescription medicines may be prescribed. When it persists or recurs frequently it is important to improve the fitness of your neck. If you have neck pain it is important to know that pain “flare-ups” are normal and to be expected and are not usually a sign of further injury. Stress and emotional tension will tend to reduce your pain threshold and intensify the symptoms associated with such “flare-ups” (Indahl 1995). Cognitive-behavioral coping strategies such as breathing techniques, light exercise, meditation, etc. are valuable parts of your care (Main).
  2. What should I do on my own?
    “The Upper Body Book” shows common postural faults and simple exercises for improving your upper back and neck posture. An additional exercise is the wall ball for the neck

Starting position:

  1. Stand with your back against a wall
  2. Place a small inflated ball behind your head

The exercise:

  1. Nod “yes” or tuck your chin in by pressing your head against the ball
  2. The ball should roll slightly upwards on the wall
  3. Keep your gaze straight ahead

Perform 8-10 repetitions very slowly twice a day

There are many different exercises that can be tried. “The Upper Body Book” shows you postural, flexibility and strengthening exercises that you can perform without any special equipment in your own home. In order to “customize” the exercises it is best to seek the advice of a HCP trained in rehabilitation to find out the best ones for you.

3) How long is it expected to last?
Most acute episodes of neck pain tend to begin improving within a month of their onset. However, in certain instances, the neck pain persists and becomes chronic. Those at greatest risk of chronicity either have significant symptoms in their lower arm and hand (numbness, tingling, or weakness) or have a great deal of anxiety and fear of their pain. It is always best to seek a HCP’s advice early on when your neck hurts so that you can learn what is causing the pain and what can be done about it so that you can enhance your chances of a speedy recovery!

Barton PM, Hayes KC 1996. Neck flexor muscle strength, and relaxation times in normal subjects and subjects with unilateral neck pain and headache. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 77:680-687.