Introduction

After any neck problem, it's important to get movement and strength back. This supports tissue healing and will help you get moving again.

You may not be able to return to your usual exercise levels immediately and improvements may be slow to start with. However, a gradual return to normal activities is the best way to get good short and long term results after a neck problem.

When doing exercise you should listen to your pain levels, especially in the early stages. You may find that these exercises increase your symptoms slightly in the beginning. However, they should get easier over time and, with regular practice, can help to improve movement in the neck.

If the exercises do cause some discomfort then taking prescribed medication from your GP or pharmacist may help to keep you exercising.

How to tell if you're exercising at the right level

This guide can help you to understand if you're exercising at the right level. It'll also let you see how much pain or discomfort is acceptable.

It can be helpful to rate your pain out of 10 (0 being no pain 10 being the worst pain you have ever had), for example:

  • 0 to 3 - minimal pain
  • 4 to 5 - acceptable pain
  • 6 to 10 - excessive pain

Pain during exercise

Aim to keep your pain within a rating of 0 to 5. If your pain gets above this level, you can change the exercises by:

  • reducing the number of times you do a movement
  • reducing the speed of a movement
  • increasing rest time between movements

Pain after exercise

Exercise shouldn't make your existing neck pain worse overall. However, practicing new exercises can sometimes cause short term muscle pain as the body gets used to moving in new ways. This kind of pain should ease quickly and your pain should be no worse the morning after you’ve exercised.

How many and how often

You should add exercises into your routine gradually to help your neck pain. 

Movement exercises

Repetitions are how often you do a single movement. When starting new exercises, it can be helpful to do 2 to 3 repetitions at a time.

It’s better to do small amounts throughout the day. For example, practise your repetitions every hour.

As this gets easier, and if you feel able to, add 1 or 2 repetitions to your movements every few days.

As you become able to do more repetitions, it can be helpful to break things up into sets. This means you could do more repetitions at a time but you'll do them less often throughout the day. For example:

  1. Do 8 repetitions.
  2. Rest for a minute.
  3. Repeat another set of 8 repetitions.
  4. Repeat this 2 to 3 times a day.

Over time you can try to increase the number of repetitions you do. You should aim for a maximum of 2 sets of 15.

Stretching exercises

The aim of a stretch is to hold a position for a longer period of time. Over time this can help to improve your range of movement. 

When doing the exercise you should be able to feel a gentle stretch. This shouldn't be sore or uncomfortable.

You should try to hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds if possible.

Try to focus on doing sets of exercises. For example, do 2 to 3 sets of stretches. Aim to do this 2 to 3 times a day.

As you do more stretching you should feel your range of movement improve and you’ll be able to stretch further.

When to stop

Stop these exercises if they make your symptoms worse, or if they cause new pain.

If your neck pain worsens while following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Help and support

If your neck pain hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Head turn

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You can do this exercise while sitting or lying on you back.

Turning and holding your head on each side is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
With your head facing forward, slowly turn your head to one side as far as is comfortable – you should feel a stretch on the opposite side of your neck.
Hold for 2 seconds then return to where you started.
Repeat on the other side.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Head tilt

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You can do this exercise while sitting or lying on you back.

Tilting and holding your head on each side is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
With your head facing forward, slowly tilt your head towards one shoulder as far as is comfortable – you should feel a stretch on the opposite side of your neck.
Hold for 2 seconds then return to where you started.
Repeat on the other side.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Forward head tilt

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You can do this movement sitting down or standing.

Moving your head down and up is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Facing forwards, bring your chin down towards your chest.
Slowly bring your chin back up.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Wide shoulder stretch

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You can do this exercise sitting down or standing.

Moving your arms out and in again is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Place your arms at a right angle in front of your body. Your palms should be facing upwards.
Keeping your upper arms still, move your palms and lower arms until they are pointing out from either side of your body. Hold for a few seconds and then bring your arms back into the starting position.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Last updated:
12 May 2022