Neck pain is a very common problem in today’s society, afflicting nearly 25% of us, with reports as high as 86% of us complaining about some level of neck pain. That means 87,750,000 Americans will complain of neck pain something this year. That is a lot of people!

What causes neck pain? The answers are as varied as we are. Often times it is as simple as stress in our lives manifesting into tension in our upper trapezius (UT) muscles that attach to the spine of our neck as well as the base of the skull and the shoulder blade. Typically one side will be more painful than the other, based on a variety of factors, including how our desk is set up at work, how much time we spend on the phone, mobile devices, and computer – just to name a few.

Because the UT attaches to the base of the skull, it can play a role in our headaches, too. A lot of my clients get some headache relief by placing an ice pack on the base of the skull, effectively “cooling off” the nerves back there, interrupting the irritated nerve cycle feeding into the headache.

Our bodies were not designed to be as sedentary as we have become. With that in mind, regular movement can help with your neck pain as well as your headaches. Simple, common stretches I have clients do at home are as follows:

  • Place your hands behind your back. This will not only stretch the front of the shoulders but will also stabilize them so they don’t wiggle around as much during the stretch.
  • Turn head to the right as far as comfortable able.
  • Take a deep breath. No, a really deep belly breath, taking about three to five seconds to inflate, then release the breath once done inflating.
  • Rotate to the left and take another deep breath.

Breathing is a key point for any and all stretches! You could count to ten in order to hold the stretch but I find counting exceptionally boring and I never make it past five … ”squirrel!” Breathing will help you pace the stretch so you get the full benefit. If a stretch is performed too quickly you will find that you get the discomfort without the benefit, you are going to work without getting paid! It takes time for the muscles to realize what is going on and to relax into it.

Breathing also deepens the stretch. All our muscles find their way to the ribcage. If the muscles don’t get longer then the ribcage can’t expand to allow the lungs to fill. You would not breath. We are exploiting your neurology a bit here too! As soon as the diaphragm starts to move it sends a signal to your muscles telling them to relax a bit and allow the breath to happen. Remember … breathing always wins!

Breathing while stretching also validates we are not doing any harm. Pain takes our breath away as well as a scary movie! Primal and protective reflexes are managed in our very fast subconscious brain. Anything that is going to harm us causes us to reflexively lock down our core to get ready for “fight or flight.” The slower higher brain then as to figure out if we need to “Fight,” “Flight,” or “Stand down” and issues the appropriate order. Breathing in this instance becomes a tool to tell you if you are being too aggressive and need to ease up a bit, or can you stay the course and allow the stretch to happen and get the full benefit.

I often have my clients set a calendar event in their phone called “Stretch” and then put it on a one-hour snooze to remind them to break away from what they are doing in order to get in a quick stretch and give some of these muscles some much needed relief.

If you are curious about other ways in which physical therapy can help you with your neck pain and headaches, I invite you to my free workshop at the Pride Center of Maryland on December 10th at 5 pm, and then again on Saturday the 14th at 10 am at my new office in Hyde Park Station, located in Essex. Trust me, there is a lot more to the story than what I can fit into a short article! Message me at for more workshop information!