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Exercises for Neck Pain

Posted on: 08/23/2012
Physical therapists often work with patients who have chronic neck pain from minor injuries. Most often, serious athletes and "wanna be" athletes (also known as "weekend warriors") are affected. These are folks with minor sprains, strains, or contusions who develop loss of motion and motor control -- sometimes without realizing it. Pain and stiffness are the two symptoms noticed first.

Exercises have been developed by therapists to help improve neck mobility, endurance, and strength. In this article, one therapist from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse provides a written and visual summary of these exercises. Photographs showing specific positions and techniques are included.

The exercises go beyond just the basic pain relief and restoration of motion and function. There are deep neck muscles that can still be misfiring or not contracting at all. Neck stability and even vision depend on the finely coordinated activities of neck muscles, eyes, and cervical vertebrae (neck bones). Exercises to improve recruitment of the cervical muscles to address these more subtle and sometimes hidden deficits are also included.

The therapist will guide individual patients through an exercise program specific to that person. It's not a good idea to just jump into an exercise routine and go full tilt ahead. The neck is especially a sensitive and delicate area that can be easily over stretched and flared up. The author provides the therapist with some reminders and guidelines for progressing exercise intensity, volume, and frequency.

Other areas must be assessed and addressed, too. For example, shoulder and trunk muscles might be involved requiring attention. Weakness in the muscles of these structures can contribute to neck pain. In some cases, the patient holds his or her head at an angle without even realizing it. They may have lost the natural function referred to as head/neck repositioning acuity. There are exercises to improve these deficits as well.

And finally, the therapist working with athletes will prescribe exercises that are sport specific, in other words, a program that will prepare the athlete for activities required by their sport. Changing speed quickly, agility to sprint easily, and the strength and endurance needed for the entire game or set all require different exercise programs.

In summary, anyone with neck pain (whether a top athlete, weekend warrior, or nonathlete) can benefit from specific exercises to address the problems they are facing. Pain, stiffness, loss of motor control, poor muscle contraction, and even dizziness can be addressed with exercises to improve repositioning acuity and postural stability.

Christopher J. Durall, PT, DPT, MS, SCS, LAT, CSCS. Therapeutic Exercise for Athletes with Nonspecific Neck Pain: A Current Concepts Review. In Sports Health. July/August 2012. Vol. 44. No. 1. Pp. 293-301.

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