A little neck pain or soreness after exercise is very common and completely safe. But if you have a student displaying symptomatic neck pain — telling you things like they’re so stiff they can’t properly turn their head, or that the pain disturbs their sleep or they’re feeling constant tension in their neck or upper shoulders — it’s time to feel empowered as their teacher to offer sound advice based in science-based evidence.
Too often, such people are told the key to tackling this kind of sensation is to relax the area, to release tension through massage or simple disuse. However, in this case, the route of least resistance is not the path to a pain-free future.
It’s a common misconception that working on the computer for long hours or scrolling on your phone can cause neck pain, however the research tells us something very different. Studies examining neck pain from that perspective all but ruled out treatment techniques such as ergonomics and massage, labeling them both as largely ineffective for long-term relief. What this research has found is that what we really want to do is exercise the neck, strengthen it and thus eliminate the true source of most neck and shoulder discomfort, whether that includes the sensation of soreness and tightness, restricted range, and even pain .
Interestingly enough, studies have also found that the quantity and quality of sleep play a massive role in neck pain. It’s not the position, as even the most corkscrewed sleepers can wake up feeling chipper, but really the connection between sleep deprivation and sensitivity to pain. This has been studied intensively with results suggesting that exposure to chronic insufficient sleep may increase vulnerability to chronic pain by altering our processes for dealing with pain.
So besides getting a solid night of sleep, what else can we do to soothe a sore neck? As Pilates instructors, we can guide students through a range of exercises they can do with you or at home to strengthen up the relevant muscles. One big contributor is the upper trapezius, the muscle that sits right on top of our shoulders and is used when you pull up for a shrug. Again, though it may sound counterintuitive, the way to reduce pain here is to build strength, which requires applying load to that shrug and working it out.
Students might tell you they can’t do that because it’ll make their neck sore. Your answer to that is simple — Yes, you may get some short term soreness in that area but if we offer the advice that if we slowly build up the strength in this area for them, they could find long term relief – how amazing is that!
Basic exercises include working with our trusty flex-band to create some tension to pull against. That’s easy enough to do and simply requires sitting up straight, folding the band in half and using your head to pull against it, holding the loose end out to the side as an anchor. There’s a demonstration as to what this actually looks like at the end of this bottom video that Raphael made as part of his “Ask Me Anything” series. You don’t strictly need the band to apply appropriate tension, so you can use a rolled-up towel, exercise ball or even just your hands. We personally like to use power bands for this, and we’ve also seen a kind of weight-lifter head cradle if you’d like to really step up the load.
Joseph Pilates was well ahead of his time (as always) and invented a piece of apparatus called the ‘Neck Stretcher’ was designed to strengthen the neck in a similar manner that you can replicate with the bands, which the picture you see inset here.
Finally, as many of the muscles of the shoulder help control the neck, we can work on those to great effect in reducing pain. This is fairly easy to do, as almost anytime when we’re working our arms, especially when lifting a load up, we’re using these shoulder muscles. For a more targeted exercise, there’s evidence that simple lateral raises with a flex band can yield really good results for people with chronic neck pain. Working on these for just two minutes a day should give a nice burn while strengthening those support muscles.
So there you have it! As with most good things in life, pushing through that initial discomfort here is the key to fighting chronic neck pain. Check out the videos hyperlinked in the text above for more in-depth explainers and, as always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions!