Tips for Relieving a Stiff Neck

These strategies can help you alleviate neck pain.

Awakening with a stiff neck is an annoying way to start the day.

Like lower back stiffness, it can typically occur from weak, fatigued or tight muscles along the spine – specifically around the cervical spine and/or surrounding shoulder and upper back muscles causing painful neck spasms or stiffness.

This article provides some preventive and active recovery tips to alleviate neck problems before indefinitely landing an athlete on the sidelines or out of the weight room.

Stiff Neck

Prevention Suggestions

Strengthen and Build Up Neck and Supporting Shoulder, Trapezius and Upper-Back Muscles

Regularly perform Barbell or Dumbbell Shrugs, Upright Rows and Inverted Rows, and manual neck strengthening movements (using the hands as resistance during neck flexion, extension, and lateral motions).

Do Daily Static Neck Stretches

Perform side, forward and backward static neck stretches help keep muscles loose.

Do Bird Dogs

Kneel on all fours on an exercise mat or carpet. Look straight ahead and raise your left hand off the mat or carpet and extend it forward. Raise your right foot and knee and extend the leg back. Hold the position for 10 seconds. Repeat the stretch with your right arm and left leg airborne. Do three sets. Bird Dogs are excellent for aligning the spinal column from the neck to the lower back and preventing tight muscles.

Replace an Old Pillow or Mattress Impacting Sleep and Contributing to an Achy Neck or Back.

Therapeutic Tips

The following active recovery suggestions may help enhance faster—but not always immediate—recovery from neck woes. Be patient and try these therapeutic modalities, and perhaps after a day or two, neck pain will subside. For more serious injuries and/or lingering or chronic neck conditions, consult a health professional.

Ice and Moist Heat Contrast Applications

Stiff Neck Ice

School athletic trainers generally will immediately apply ice for those more serious neck injuries such as the previously mentioned stingers or burners to reduce inflammation. But even when turning the neck after a bad night's sleep is difficult, contrasting ice and moist heat applications can help bring relief. Especially beneficial is soaking a towel in warm water mixed with a cup of Epsom salt and draping it around the neck to relax tight muscles.

Gentle Static Stretching

Slow and gentle stretching of shoulder, upper-back and neck muscles is another means of lessening soreness and enhancing greater range of multi-directional neck movement. Hold each static stretch for 10-20 seconds.

Bird Dogs

The aforementioned Bird Dogs are not only suggested for preventing neck ailments, but may also minimize soreness. Follow the earlier instructions for performing them.

Shoulder Shrugs

Perform 3x10 bodyweight Shoulder Shrugs (raise the shoulders upward toward the neck and hold for 10 seconds at the top range, slowly lower to start position and repeat nine more times. The Shrugs may also aid restoring pain-free neck motion.


Use your fingertips, a foam roller, tennis ball or lacrosse ball and press firmly around tight neck, shoulder and upper-back muscles to erase trigger points restricting neck movement. Press and squeeze around neck, shoulder and upper-back muscles with the hands and fingertips. For unreachable areas with the hands, assume a supine or side position on a soft surface and place a foam roller between the muscles and mat/carpet and roll up and down to ease discomfort. For localized areas and ridding painful trigger points and knots, continue lying on the back or sideways and place the softer tennis ball or harder lacrosse ball on muscles and press down deeply on the ball and hold for a few seconds. Continue moving the ball and pivoting your body to other areas around the shoulders, trapezius and upper back including pressing down on the ball between the shoulder blades (a common area indirectly provoking neck and shoulder aches and tightness).

Contraindication: Do not place the ball or foam roller directly on the spine—only on muscles along the spine.