If you’re reaching for a bottle of pills to fight neck pain, consider exercising those aching muscles instead. A study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine found patients who exercised or underwent physical therapy experienced less pain than those who opted for medication.

The special type of therapy used in the study is called spinal manipulation therapy. It works to restore muscles, ligaments, and soft tissues to their full range of movement and elasticity. A specialist typically completes spinal manipulation, but study participants who completed a specific set of exercises at home experienced the same level of pain relief as those undergoing physical therapy.

Exercising the neck for just 12 weeks benefited neck pain sufferers for up to 1 year.

For the study, researchers recruited over 200 people ranging in age from 18 to 65 who had reported neck pain for anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks. Participants were divided into 3 groups—1 received spinal manipulation therapy, the 2nd was assigned to home exercises, and the 3rd took medication. Patients in the medication group took a range of drugs, including acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers, and in some cases, narcotics.

Although the exercise and spinal manipulation therapy lasted just 12 weeks, researchers evaluated patients periodically over an entire year. They primarily measured pain, but also looked at factors including general health and self-reported disability.

The group who exercised at home received specific rules and a prescribed set of exercises on flash cards. The exercises involved complete neck mobility, backwards, forwards, and all around. Participants held each exercise for 2 or 3 seconds per repetition and repeated them 5 to 10 times. They completed the entire set anywhere from 6 to 8 times each day.

Exercises include:

  1. While sitting or standing, hold the neck at a natural position. Then, push the head back and hold before releasing back to neutral.
  2. While sitting or standing with the head in a neutral position, bend the head backward, looking up to the sky. Hold, release, and repeat.
  3. Lie down on a sofa or table so the shoulders are supported but the head is not. Support the head with a hand before releasing and allowing the head to gently fall back. Hold, lift up gently, and repeat.
  4. Sitting or standing, gently stretch the head to the left. Bring back to neutral before stretching to the right. Hold, release, and repeat.
  5. Look to the left and right. In each direction, hold for a few breaths before releasing.
  6. Sitting in a neutral position, interlace the hands at the back of the head. Gently press the head forward, so you’re looking down. Hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat.

Have you tried neck exercises to alleviate pain? 

Image by Jasmine Kaloudis via Flickr

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