Neck tension refers to neck pain that develops when the muscles in the neck cannot relax, which can lead to soreness, muscle spasms, and headaches. It has numerous possible causes, ranging from joint problems to inflamed nerves.
Depending on the underlying cause, people can experience different types of neck tension and pain, which distinct symptoms can accompany. Research suggests that as many as 71% of adults around the world will experience neck pain at some point in their lifetime.
Continue reading this article to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of neck tension.
The brain sends electrical signals, or nerve impulses, to trigger muscle movement. Muscles can either contract or relax, depending on the message that they receive from the brain.
Muscle tension occurs when a muscle stays contracted despite receiving signals from the brain that tell it to relax. If a muscle remains contracted for too long, it can cause pain.
People can develop neck tension for numerous reasons. Common causes of neck tension include:
Poor posture can affect the neck muscles. People who find themselves hunching over their computer or slouching in their chair all day may notice some neck tension after a while.
The authors of a 2016 study involving 126 college students found a correlation between a forward head position and increased neck pain and disability.
Poor posture can cause the weight of the head to shift forward and away from the center of the body, forcing the neck muscles to work harder to support the head.
Hunching over a computer or looking down at a phone not only moves the head forward but also forces the neck to bend with it. This bending can overextend the muscles in the back of the neck, resulting in pain and inflammation.
Sleeping in the wrong position
Posture affects the body at all times, even during sleep. People who sleep on their stomachs tend to rest one side of their face on the pillow. Doing this can overextend the muscles on that side of the neck.
Sleeping with large pillows can elevate the head too high, forcing the neck to bend forward. Staying in this position throughout the night may result in neck tension the following morning.
Repetitive neck movements
People who perform repetitive movements throughout the day can develop repetitive motion disorders.
While these disorders usually occur in the hands, wrists, and shoulders, they can also affect the neck, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Without treatment, repetitive motion disorders can lead to pain, swelling, and even permanent tissue damage.
Bruxism is a condition in which people grind or clench their teeth while they sleep. Grinding or clenching the teeth puts pressure on the muscles in the jaw and neck, which can cause neck tension, pain, and headaches.
A person can injure the muscles in their neck if they lift heavy weights, play impact sports, or experience whiplash from a car accident.
These types of injuries can cause mild-to-severe muscle strains, which may require medical treatment or physical therapy.
Untreated muscle strains can lead to persistent neck pain and even permanent damage that reduces the range of motion and flexibility in the neck.
Stress has a powerful effect on the entire body. When the brain senses stress, it signals the release of several hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones increase the heart rate and blood pressure, as well as tightening the muscles.
When a person experiences stress regularly, their muscles remain tense and contracted for longer periods, which can result in neck and shoulder tension.
These individuals also reported higher levels of stress, engaged in less physical activity, and rated their health poorly in comparison with the participants who had migraine without tension headaches and neck pain.
The symptoms of neck tension can vary in their severity but typically include:
- muscle stiffness or soreness
- muscle spasms
- sharp or intense pain that worsens with movement
Stretching helps improve flexibility and range of motion, while exercising increases muscle strength. Improving muscle flexibility and strength can help support proper posture and relieve neck tension. People may find the following stretches and exercises beneficial in preventing or relieving neck tension:
Basic neck stretch
To perform a basic neck stretch, people can follow these steps:
- Sit or stand up straight with the neck in a neutral position and the arms and shoulders relaxed.
- Reach the right hand over the head, placing the palm on the left side of the head.
- Stretch the left side of the neck by gently pulling the head over to the right.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
Neck rolls involve the following series of movements:
- Begin with the head in a neutral position.
- Drop the chin toward the chest.
- Slowly roll the head to one side so that the ear almost touches the shoulder.
- Continue rolling the head in the same direction, allowing the top of the head to face backward.
- Bring the head around to the other shoulder.
- Complete a full rotation by bringing the head to the front of the body, keeping the chin tucked into the chest.
- Do 5–10 neck rolls in one direction and then repeat the exercise going in the opposite direction.
Forward neck stretch
This simple stretch may help relieve tension:
- Sit or stand with a straight back, keeping the shoulders and arms relaxed.
- Interlace the fingers and place the palms on the back of the head with the elbows facing forward.
- Gently pull the head down toward the chest.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.
Side-to-side neck exercise
People can perform this exercise as follows:
- Sit upright with the shoulders back and the head and neck in a neutral position.
- Slowly rotate the head from side to side, keeping the chin parallel to the ground.
- Keep the rotations small to avoid overextending the neck muscles.
- Complete 5–10 rotations on each side.
Shoulder blade squeeze
A shoulder blade squeeze requires a person to follow the steps below:
- Stand up straight and spread the feet apart.
- Start with the shoulders in a relaxed position.
- Squeeze the shoulder blades together behind the body.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Repeat this exercise 5–10 times.
People can follow these steps to do a standing pushup:
- Stand about an arm’s length away from a wall with the feet spread apart.
- Place the hands on the wall, making sure that they align with the shoulders.
- Keeping the back straight, slowly bend the elbows, bringing the upper body toward the wall.
- Straighten the elbows and return to the starting position.
- Repeat this exercise 5–10 times.
In addition to the stretches and exercises above, people can relieve neck tension with rest, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and lifestyle changes.
The following remedies may help people manage neck tension:
- applying a cold compress to reduce pain and inflammation
- applying a warm compress to help relax tense neck muscles
- taking OTC pain relievers to reduce mild-to-moderate muscle pain
- taking an Epsom salt bath
- practicing stress management and relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga
- exercising regularly
- getting a massage
- changing sleeping positions and using pillows that support the neck without overextending it
People may wish to see a doctor if they experience persistent neck tension that does not improve with at-home exercises and remedies.
People may require immediate medical attention if they develop neck pain after an injury or a car accident or if they experience the following symptoms:
- intense or sharp neck pain
- recurring headaches
People who grind or clench their teeth at night can speak with a dentist about getting a bite guard to wear at night.
Neck pain is a common complaint that affects people all around the world. Muscle tension is a common cause of neck pain and can develop as a result of poor posture, repetitive movements, and injuries, among other factors.
People can relieve neck tension by stretching the neck muscles, which improves flexibility and range of motion. Exercises that target the muscles in the back, shoulders, and neck can help improve a person’s posture and prevent neck tension.
People who experience neck tension that interferes with their ability to function normally may wish to consider speaking with a doctor about medical treatment options.