Neck tension: causes, symptoms & remedies

Neck tension is a really common problem.  For some people it’s intermittent, while others suffer from it for extended periods.  Symptoms can include:

  • Feeling of stiffness and restricted movement
  • Discomfort or pain in the neck and above the shoulder blades
  • Restricted neck movement (not able to look over your shoulder and/or lower your ear towards your shoulder)
  • Headaches
  • A tightening sensation around your head
  • Muscle spasms

What causes neck tension?

Neck pain

There are a number of causes of neck tension.  What is happening is that the muscles in the upper back and neck are failing to relax fully and staying slightly contracted when they don’t need to.  There may also be some muscle “knots” – bundles of muscle fibres that are stuck together.  Possible causes for this are:

Extended periods of desk work or looking at smart phones

text neck

There are 2 problems here. Firstly, the head tends to stay fixed in one position for a long time.  Secondly, the neck is usually flexed, putting extra strain on the muscles.

Poor posture habits

Hunched shoulders push the head forward and downwards. As we need to be able to look where we are going, the neck muscles have to compensate by extending the neck backwards .  Over time this causes tension and discomfort.

Anxiety

Our bodies go into stress response mode when we’re anxious.  This includes tensing of muscles.  So if someone suffers from anxiety, their muscles are often in a state of tension.  The person may get so used to this state that the muscles never properly relax.

Repetitive movements involving the shoulders (painting or sawing for example)

Some occupations involve strenuous repetitive movements which cause irritation and inflammation of muscles and joint structures.

Carrying a bag on one shoulder

Uneven loading of the shoulders can lead to imbalances, with one side weak and stretched and the other side tight and tense.

How to improve neck tension

To effectively deal with the problem, you need to address the causes as well as the symptoms.

Changing behaviours

Desk work: you should make sure that your work station is set up to avoid strain and posture problems – see here for advice.  You should also try to take breaks and do neck mobilising exercises whenever you get the chance.

Smart phone usage: try to cut down on non-essential use and hold the phone higher so that you’re not looking down at it.

Shoulder bags: rucksacks distribute the weight evenly, but obviously aren’t always suitable.  The lighter the load, the less damaging it will be, so only carry what you really need to.  Try to make sure that you’re keeping your shoulders level.

Repetitive movements at work: the solution to this isn’t easy.  Usually there isn’t an alternative to doing the repetitive movements and all you can do is to manage the symptoms as described below.

Dealing with anxiety: See this post for advice on managing anxiety

Improving posture: correcting bad posture involves changing habits that cause the bad posture and re-balancing muscles.  When posture is bad, there will always be some muscles that are over-tight and some that are weak and stretched.  For hunched shoulder posture, you should stretch the chest muscles and strengthen the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades.

To stretch your chest muscles, take your hands behind your back, making sure your shoulders stay down away from your ears.

To strengthen your shoulder stabilisers, try this shoulder rotation exercise:

Or one of these rowing action exercises:
rowing exercises

Relief of symptoms

If you are experiencing symptoms, there are several ways of treating them.

Massage

Massage helps with both prevention and treatment of neck tension.  Regular massage can help to keep the muscles relaxed and tension free.  It is also effective in releasing tension and breaking down knots.  Read more about massage here.

Heat

Heat helps muscles to relax.  Either a heat pad or a hot bath are soothing to tense muscles.  Although there is no research to support its effectiveness, many people find that Epsom salt baths help to soothe and relax muscles.

Muscle relaxants

Over the counter muscle relaxants can be effective to relieve pain and spasm, either in the form of tablets or gels.

Whole body relaxation techniques

This is especially relevant when the cause of the tension is anxiety, but breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques can help ease tension due to other causes too.

More information

For more information on the subjects above, follow these link

Massage treatments

Anxiety management

Improving posture

Stretching