Neck Tension: What Causes Tension in Neck & How to Relieve it?

What is Neck Tension?

Tension in the neck can really be a pain in the neck experience for all of us. Neck tension is described by many people as tightness, stiffness, soreness and pain in the neck, especially the back of the neck. For some individuals this symptom is felt as an unrelenting and persistent soreness and tension in the neck. Along with the symptoms in the neck region, there can be tension, pressure, stiffness or soreness in the shoulder area with pain radiating into the back of the head. Some may experience this feeling, as pressure like headache with a feeling as if there is a tight band around the head. Some of the common measures we adopt to relieve neck tension is “cracking” our necks or rolling our necks in an effort to release the stiffness, tension and soreness. The neck tension can be sporadic or occur frequently or can be unrelenting. Neck tension can be felt as pain, stiffness in the neck, back region and shoulder area. A person can also have accompanying headache and pain in the eyes.

Neck Tension

There are many causes for neck tension. Some of which are described in detail below.

Neck Tension: What Causes Tension in Neck & How to Relieve it?

Neck Tension Caused Due to Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the main causes for neck tension. Patient may feel neck tension after a bout of anxiety or other symptoms of stress. Patient may experience an episode of anxiety, nervousness, fear and increased stress before the neck tension occurs. The pain or tension in the neck can be slight to moderate or even severe. The symptoms can come in waves, such as with increased intensity one moment and then subside the next moment.

Neck Tension Caused Due to Anxiety

When a person behaves in an anxious manner it triggers the stress response which is responsible for bringing certain psychological, physiological and emotional changes in the body which allows the body to deal with any danger. This is known as fight or flight response. The body responds to stress by tightening the muscles. These muscles, which have a tightening effect, can be in the any muscle group in the body, including the neck muscles and muscles in the back of the head and shoulder. This results in neck tension, which is commonly seen in anxious and stressed people. Neck tension is a common indication of anxiety and stress.

How to Relieve Neck Tension Due to Anxiety?

Patient should try calming himself/herself down in order to relieve the tension in the neck caused due to anxiety. This will bring an immediate decrease in stress response and thus decrease the neck tension. Deep breathing techniques, massage and heating pads also help in relieving the neck tension caused due to anxiety. Pain relievers help in alleviating the pain and soreness from the neck muscles. It takes around 20 minutes for the body to recover from a stress response. Having a hot bath also helps in relaxing the tense muscles. But the most important thing is, eliminating the source of stress and anxiety which helps in relieving the neck tension.

Neck Tension Caused Due to Sub-Optimal Posture

Improper or Sub-optimal posture can be commonly seen when a person works at his/her desk and stares at the computer screen for long periods of time. We tend to sit in a slouched position and keep the neck flexed forward, which increases the stress on the neck muscles leading to neck tension.

How to Relieve Neck Tension Due to Sub-Optimal Posture?

Avoid drawing your head forward when sitting and working on your computer as forward tilting of the head increases the weight of the head on the spine. This leads to shortening of the muscles in the front of the neck and lengthening of the muscles in the back of the neck resulting in tensing or tightening of the neck muscles in order to accommodate the new head & neck position. Sub-optimal posture also increases the stress on the spinal discs and vertebrae.

When sitting at a desk gently tilt your head back in alignment with your shoulders and try to keep your head erect. Try to keep your head position in this manner. If you feel that your head is tilting forward again, then keep hourly reminders to adjust your position.

Neck Tension Caused Due to Exercising but Neglecting the Head and Neck Muscles

This can be seen when doing exercises like pushups. The whole body is in alignment, but many people tend to lean their head and neck downwards when doing pushups. The same mistake can occur when doing other exercises. This causes increased stress on the neck resulting in tensed neck muscles.

How to Relieve Neck Tension Due to Exercising

In order to avoid tension in the neck while exercising, make sure to keep your neck and head in alignment with the spine and avoid flexing the neck while exercising. This will prevent the bunching up of the neck muscles causing pain and stiffness in the neck.

Neck Tension Caused Due to Mobile Phone Use

In today’s world, we can’t deny that we are addicted to our mobile phones. We are always staring at our mobiles even when doing normal activities of daily living, such as waiting for the bus, train, your kids etc., we are always tipping our head over our mobile phones like a teapot. This forces the neck muscles to hold a load, which it is not intended for, for sustained periods of time leading to tension in the neck due to excessive mobile phone use. Other than neck tension, there can be shoulder pain and eye strain too as a result of mobile phone use.

How to Relieve Neck Tension Caused Due to Mobile Phone Use?

Best way to avoid tension in the neck caused due to mobile phone use is to cut down on the time spent using mobile phones to play games, access social media, check mails or browse the net. In the event if it is not possible to cut down the mobile use, then it is preferable to use your arm to lift up your phone to your eye level so that you don’t have to bend you head. Another position is, bend your arm at the elbow then place your elbow against your ribcage and keep your phone close to your face. Use your eye muscles for looking at your mobile instead of using your neck muscles for leaning etc. We tend to forget that our eye muscles can look in a variety of directions without having to move our head. This should be practiced on a daily basis as we are always used to turning our head and neck to look in any direction.

Another thing you can do to avoid neck tension when using your mobile is, take your phone and keep it in your lap. Keep your head straight and use only your eyes to look down at your phone. This way you can get into the habit of practicing using only your eye muscles to shift your gaze or look at things in different directions.

Neck Tension Caused Due to Incorrect Sleeping Position

We sleep in order to recharge and rejuvenate our body, but alas the neck and head muscles tend to be neglected as most of us do not sleep in the right position. Many people tend to sleep in a head-forward position, i.e. by keeping their head tilted to their side or forwards when sleeping. This results in tensing of the neck muscles causing neck tension or neck soreness when we get up in the morning. It is very important to maintain an optimal head position when sleeping so that the muscles of the head and neck are also rested and relaxed enough to prevent tension in the neck.

So even though sleeping is supposed to be a time for rest, we could be tensing our muscles, especially the neck muscles hard all through the night. Holding a particular position when sleeping will also cause tensing of the muscles.

How to Relieve Neck Tension Due to Incorrect Sleeping Position?

When you are lying down to sleep, always appraise the position of your head in relation to your body. Think of your spine as the center of your body and place your head straight on top of the head. Whenever you find that your head is curling forward or downward or is leaning off to the side, bring it back to its proper position and relax into sleep. This will help prevent tension in neck caused due to incorrect sleeping position.

Also, whenever, you wake up during the night, gently check your posture and the position of your head. If it has slipped back into your old posture then bring it back into the proper position and go back to sleep. With time, you’ll find yourself waking up in a better-aligned posture of the head.

Simple Remedies for Relieving Neck Tension

  • Practice deep relaxation and breathing techniques such as meditation. This is can be very helpful in relieving the tensed neck muscles
  • Doing moderate exercises daily helps in strengthening the neck muscles and preventing issues like neck tension.
  • Gently stretch your neck muscles.
  • Gentle massage the neck and shoulder muscles to help in alleviating the neck tension.
  • A warm bath helps in relaxing the muscles including the neck muscles.
  • Heat applications, such as a heating pad placed on the back of the neck helps in reducing the neck muscle tension.
  • Ointment can be applied to soothe the sore neck muscles.
  • Pain relievers can be taken for relief of pain associated with neck tension.
  • Drink plenty of water and keep yourself hydrated. When the muscles are dehydrated, they tend to cramp, which results in neck tension.

Top 5 Effective Exercises for Relieving Neck Tension

Shoulder Shrug Exercise for Relieving Neck Tension:

  • Lift the top of your shoulders and try to bring them as close to your ears as you can.
  • Tension can be felt in your neck and shoulders.
  • Hold this lift/position for 5 seconds, and then bring your shoulders back to their original position.
  • Do at least 5 reps of this exercise daily.
  • Shoulder shrug exercise helps in preventing the neck tension from worsening.

Head Tilt Exercise for Relieving Neck Tension

  • Look straight ahead and keep your neck straight.
  • Slowly tilt your head towards the left side and hold this position for about 8 to 10 seconds.
  • This will help in relieving the neck tension on the right side.
  • Repeat the same on your right side to get relief on the left side of the neck.

Chin Turn Exercise for Relieving Neck Tension

  • Sit straight and look forward.
  • Turn your chin slowly towards your right shoulder till you feel a stretch on the left side of your neck.
  • Hold this position for ten seconds.
  • Bring your chin back to the centre.
  • Repeat the process towards the left shoulder.
  • Do 5 reps on each side for relaxing the tensed neck muscle.

Elbow Pull Exercise for Neck Tension Relief

  • Lift your right arm straight up and then bend it.
  • Using your left hand to hold your right elbow and slowly pull it towards your head.
  • Hold this position for about 10 to 15 seconds.
  • Repeat the same process on the other side.
  • This exercise does not work directly on the neck muscles, but helps in relieving the tension in the muscles of the upper back, which indirectly helps in providing relief for tension in the neck and shoulder area.

Back Stretch Exercise to Relieve Tensed Neck Muscle

  • Bend your knees and place the palm of your hand on your lower back.
  • With the help of your palms, push your back forwards.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds and repeat.
  • This exercise helps in stretching the muscles on the neck as well as the back and will help in relieving neck tension. This is also a good exercise for those who have been sitting for prolonged periods of time in the same position.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 28, 2019

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