It doesn't take a rear-end collision to trigger neck pain. Even the most mundane activity -- reading in bed or sitting frozen in front of your laptop -- can leave your neck stiff and sore. Along with other muscles of the neck, the trapezius and scalene muscles help you lift, lower, tilt and turn your head. If you've identified those two muscles as particularly short and tight, use a program of gentle stretching to help you restore or increase range of motion.
Get to know the muscles you're trying to stretch. The upper trapezius fires up when you shrug your shoulders, tilt your head to the back or raise your head from a lateral position. The scalene kicks into action when you lower your chin toward your chest. Both muscles help you lower your ear toward your shoulder and rotate your head from side to side. Keep in mind, to stretch a muscle that tips the head forward, you've got to tip the head back; to stretch a muscle that tilts your head to the right, tilt your head to the left.
Start with the most basic and most comfortable stretches. In the beginning, stick with exercises that involve pure flexion or extension -- bending the head to the front, back or side. Don't combine movements -- such as tilting the head to the back and side simultaneously -- until your flexibility increases. Pick one or two basic stretches and perform them daily for several days. As your muscles start to loosen up, experiment with more complex positions, combining multiple movements in a single stretch.
Interlace your fingers and place them on the back of your head for a basic neck flexion stretch. Exhale and slowly lower your chin to your chest, lengthening both the right and left upper trapezius. Aim to touch your chin to the lowest possible point on your chest. Press your hands lightly into the back of your head to increase the stretch. As you gain flexibility, work one side at a time and combine forward flexion with lateral flexion or rotation. For example, rotate your head to the left and use your left hand to press on the back of your head. Aim to bring your chin to your left shoulder.
Reverse the motion of the head for a neck extension stretch. With your head centered over your spine, slowly raise your chin toward the ceiling, drawing the base of your head toward your upper back. If you wish, place one or both hands on your forehead and press the head back slightly to increase the stretch. Pay close attention to your shoulders; don't allow them to creep upward. As the stretch becomes more comfortable, add a slight lateral bend or gentle rotation to the backward tilt of the head.
Square off your shoulders as you prepare for a basic but intense lateral flexion stretch. Extend your right arm at a 45-degree angle from your body and move it behind you slightly. Retract your right shoulder blade, pulling it down and back. With the top of your head directly over your spine and your face to the front, slowly draw your left ear to your left shoulder. If you wish, place your left hand on your head just above your ear and gently coax the head closer to your shoulder.
- Hold every stretch for up to 30 seconds. Release briefly and repeat the stretch up to four times on each side.
- Sit or stand with proper posture for the duration of every stretch. Maintain a straight spine and press your shoulders down and slightly back. Relax your face, jaw and shoulders as much as possible to allow for full range of motion.
- Stretch both sides of the neck equally, even if one side seems tighter than the other.
- Keep your movements smooth, relaxed and controlled. Breathe easily to enhance the movement and achieve a deeper, more effective stretch.
- Don't force the stretch. Overstretching can lead to further shortening of the muscles you're trying to lengthen. If you use your hand to apply pressure to the head, a gentle nudge is all you need. More than that could cause injury.
Judy Fisk has been writing professionally since 2011, specializing in fitness, recreation, culture and the arts. A certified fitness instructor with decades of dance training, she has taught older adults, teens and kids. She has written educational and fundraising material for several non-profit organizations and her work has appeared in numerous major online publications. Fisk holds a Bachelor of Arts in public and international affairs from Princeton University.