Show your neck and shoulders some love

How to relieve tension in this area.
Published December 8, 2022

If you’ve ever had a stiff neck or tight, achy shoulders – you’re most definitely not alone.

“Many factors can contribute to neck pain, including the postural patterns of modern life, which can lead to suboptimal muscle function and neck position,” explains Jenni Tarma, an ERYT500 and Yoga Medicine® therapeutic specialist.

And because there’s a handful of muscles that connect the shoulder to the neck, shoulder and neck tension are often intermingled.

Where it often starts

“The simple fact that we spend a large proportion of our day seated at our desks and looking forward at our devices means there’s potential for developing patterns of tension and dysfunction.”

The terms “upper cross syndrome” and “anterior head carriage” both refer to the position many of us end up in as a result of computer time, she explains. Specifically, they refer to a rounded upper back, the shoulders hiked up and rotated in, the chest closed off, the head dropping forward and the neck uncomfortably scrunched up.

“Activities like using a mouse, for example, cause the shoulder blade to hike up, and maintaining this position for long periods of time can create muscular tension that carries over into the neck region,” Tarma says.

“Stress can certainly play a role, too,” she adds, “the neck, shoulders and even jaw are common areas for holding stress, which can easily accumulate over the course of a busy workday. Many muscles in the neck and shoulder refer pain to the head, forehead and face, and so can contribute to tension headaches.”

How to relieve tension

“The good news is that simple things can be really effective in relieving tension and helping your neck feel better,” she says.

“Tension can be caused by muscles ‘forgetting’ how to relax after being held in contracted states for long periods of time, so simply moving your neck through its natural range of motion can help reset them into a more relaxed state.”

Tarma recommends mindfully moving your neck through all planes of motion.

  • Flexion and extension: Tuck your chin toward your chest; look up toward the ceiling.
  • Lateral flexion: Drop each ear toward the shoulder on the same side.
  • Rotation: Turn your head to look to the right and to the left.

“Getting some general, gentle movement into the tissues promotes circulation and refreshes the entire area, and also provides an opportunity to observe your personal patterns and postural tendencies,” Tarma says. “Noticing this helps you identify when the tension patterns start to creep in over the course of the day so you can catch them early and give yourself a little stretch or movement break.”

For another stretch, you might want to try targeting your levator scapulae muscle, which connects the shoulder blade to the top of the neck and, Tarma says, is a frequent culprit in neck tension.

  • Take your right hand behind your low back, palm facing behind you and knuckles resting in the curve of your low back.
  • Drape your left arm over the top of your head and let the weight of your arm gently tug your left ear toward the left shoulder, so you’re coming into a side bend with your neck.

“You may already feel a stretch here and can also experiment with gently rolling your chin down towards your chest to identify the lines of tension between the neck and shoulder,” she says. “Take a moment to notice the difference between doing the second side shoulder.”

An ounce of prevention

While relieving tension is of course important, it’s always great if we can prevent it from happening in the first place. So ideally, we want to get out of the postural habits that cause tension and pain.

“Essentially, we want to get out of that position where the upper back is rounded and the head is dropping forward, and teach our muscles how to hold a more optimal position,” Tarma explains.

She suggests these two movements:

  • Scapular retraction: “As the upper back rounds, the shoulder blades naturally separate on the back of the rib cage – this movement is called ‘protraction.’ To counter this tendency, we want to retract the shoulder blades, which is simply the action of squeezing them towards the spine. As you actively draw the shoulder blades towards one another, notice the muscular effort and action of the movement, as well as how it naturally opens the chest, moves the shoulders back, and ‘un-slouches’ the whole spine.”
  • Cervical retraction: “This movement essentially counteracts the tendency of the whole head to drop forward, causing the neck to move into an extended position and the muscles there to become compacted and scrunched up (this is the position referred to as ‘anterior head carriage’). Cervical retraction is the opposite movement, and the action is that of gliding the entire head back so the neck lengthens, and the head stacks on top of the spine. You can imagine lifting the base of the skull up and back, or sliding the roof of the mouth towards the base of the skull.” If that feels tricky, Tarma says, try standing with your back to a wall, and then moving the whole head up and back until the back of your skull also makes contact with the wall.

If you work a desk job, taking frequent breaks can also be beneficial.

“Aside from the physical benefits of keeping these tension-prone areas mobile and healthy, you’re also giving yourself more opportunities to actively notice how, when and where you personally tend to tighten up,” Tarma says.

“A little goes a long way and it doesn’t need to be complicated! Take just a few minutes to explore moving your neck and shoulders and see where your tension spots are. When you’ve found one or two stretches that feel good, stick with them and do them often – the repetition is powerful, and when you start to notice the cumulative benefits, that will become its own motivational factor.”