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exercises for tension in neck and upper back

Exercises to Relieve your Neck and Upper Back Tension

by Tony Matoska PT, DPT, CMPTLeave a Comment

If you’re like the millions of Americans across the county, you may find yourself working at a job that requires an extensive amount of sitting, computer work, or meetings that don’t allow you to move and change positions as often as you need. According to the American Heart Association, over 80% of jobs are sedentary, requiring excessive sitting and not enough physical activity.1 Because of the pandemic, many of us are now working from home, which only increases the amount of time we spend sitting. Data shows that between 15 and 34% of desk workers will experience neck pain related to their job. Work-related neck pain is the leading cause of disability and absence from work.2

Despite the high occurrence of pain and disability, you can do plenty of things to help prevent this and manage the pain and tension you may feel in your neck and upper back after long periods of desk and computer work. Below are four easy exercises that require very little time or equipment.

Chin Tuck

This is a simple exercise to take pressure off the upper neck and can even relieve some of those headaches you may get from sitting and looking at a computer screen for too long. Begin laying on your back with your head resting on the ground or bed. Feel free to place a folded towel or thin pillow under the back of your head Gently tuck your chin towards your neck and push your neck towards the bed or ground. Hold for 5-10 seconds while making sure you are breathing. Repeat for 10-20 repetitions. This movement requires minimal effort, and many people find themselves pushing too aggressively.

exercises for tension in neck and upper back exercises for tension in neck and upper back

Cervical SNAGs

This is a great exercise if you feel like turning your head has become difficult. All you need for this exercise is a thinly folded towel or stretching strap if you have it. In a seated position, place the towel behind your neck near the base of your skull. Placement can be adjusted based on where you are feeling the stiffest. If you are trying to improve your ability to turn to the right, grab the right side of the towel with your left hand and hold it down firmly at your chest. Grab the left side of the towel with your right hand and pull it across your cheek. Gently pull the towel across your cheek, turning your head to the right. Pull until a gentle stretch is held, breathe and hold for a moment (2-5 seconds), release and return to the start position. Perform 10-15 repetitions. To perform in the other direction, you will need to reverse the placement of your hands. Make sure the side of the towel that is helping you turn is on your cheek and not your neck to avoid choking yourself.

exercises for tension in neck and upper back exercises for tension in neck and upper back

Open Books

This is one of my favorite exercises and feels great for your neck, upper back, and chest, which commonly get tight with long periods of sitting. Begin laying on your side (does not matter which side because you will do it on both). Have your head resting on a pillow for support. Place your top hand by your ear and start with your elbows close together (closed position). Keep your knees stacked and bent, so they are just below the level of your hips. Gently turn your head and reach your top elbow as if you are a book that is opening up. Rotate until a stretch is felt, and make sure you breathe in deeply during the rotation. Hold for 1-2 seconds at the end range before returning to the start position. Repeat 20-30 times and then do the same thing on the other side.

exercises for tension in neck and upper back exercises for tension in neck and upper back

Chest Stretch on Chair

This is a great stretch for your chest and self-mobilization for your upper back. Start kneeling in front of a chair with your arms crossed and resting on top of the seat. Bend at your hips while keeping your arms on the chair, lower your trunk towards the ground until you feel a stretch in your chest or upper back. Try not to arch your back and make sure you breathe comfortably during the stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds and perform 3-5 repetitions.

exercises for tension in neck and upper back exercises for tension in neck and upper back

These exercises should be done without pain. Call your local Athletico clinic or request a free assessment if you continue to feel pain or discomfort or your symptoms worsen. Our skilled clinicians will assess your neck and back and provide specialized care to address your complaints. Free Assessments are available in-clinic and virtually through our Telehealth platform.

Request a Free Assessment

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. J Am Heart Assoc. 2018;7: e007735. DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.117.007735
2. Darivemula SB, Goswami K, Gupta SK, Salve H, Singh U, Goswami AK. Work-related Neck Pain Among Desk Job Workers of Tertiary Care Hospital in New Delhi, India: Burden and Determinants. Indian J Community Med. 2016;41(1):50-54. doi:10.4103/0970-0218.170967

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