A strained neck can be an extremely painful and disruptive condition that makes daily activities difficult. From turning your head to drive safely to looking down at your phone, a strained neck impacts some of the most common motions we perform every day. The pain and limited mobility caused by neck strain leads many to wonder what they can do to speed up healing and get relief quickly. One option that often comes to mind is stretching – but is that advisable or even safe when dealing with an already strained neck?
Why Stretching Helps Sore Muscles
First, it’s important to understand why stretching provides benefits for sore or strained muscles in the first place. Stretching works by lengthening muscles and connective tissues that have become tight or tense due to overuse or trauma. This helps increase blood flow, deliver oxygen and nutrients, remove waste products, and ultimately facilitate healing.
Additionally, stretching triggers your parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for resting and recharging. Stretching signals to your body that it’s time to relax, slowing things down and switching gears towards recovery. The pressure receptors stretched by lengthened muscles communicate signals to your central nervous system to initiate calming, restorative processes.
So in many cases, stretching strained muscles makes good physiological sense and science supports its use – when done properly.
The Risks of Stretching an Acute Neck Injury
Despite the benefits, caution must be taken when dealing with a fresh or acute muscle strain. Stretching strains microfibers in muscles and surrounding soft tissues. With inflammation and vulnerability already heightened after a recent strain or sprain, aggressive stretching can worsen injury by overloading weakened tissue.
Excessive stretching of an acute neck strain can potentially:
- Tear muscle fibers, increasing pain & inflammation
- Compress nerves, causing numbness & tingling
- Cut off blood flow to strained tissue, delaying healing
Additionally, pushing into uncomfortable ranges of motion may activate your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. This floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol – hormones focused on responding to perceived threats rather than promoting relaxation and repair.
The bottom line is that forcing stretches on an already strained neck coming straight off a new injury is generally not recommended.
When to Begin Stretching Your Strained Neck
So when can stretching be safely implemented as part of recovering from a strained neck? As a general rule of thumb, stretching should be avoided in the first 24-72 hours after injury when inflammation peaks post-trauma.
However, very gentle stretching can often be started even just a few days after injury when pain and swelling begin to subside. The key is focusing on light stretches – think more like therapeutic movements rather than aggressive lengthening activities. Gentle rotations and small ranges of pain-free motion can pump fresh blood into recovering tissues.
As the strain continues to heal over subsequent days and weeks, gradual stretching can be incorporated more assertively. Neck rolls, chin tilts, side bends, and light traction can extend range of motion as your strength returns. Just be sure to back off if stretching ever significantly worsens your pain.
It’s also crucial to avoid stretching a strained neck by “pushing through pain” at any time during recovery. Small, gentle movements targeting flexibility should produce sensation without sharp pain.
Relieving a Strained Neck
When dealing with the misery of an injured neck, the question often becomes what can I do right now for relief? While rest and avoidance of reopen injuries are critical early on, other options exist too for managing pain and discomfort without stretching. These include:
- Ice packs – Reduce swelling & ease ache
- Heat packs – Loosen tightened muscles
- Over-the-counter medication – Alleviate inflammation
- Massage – Release muscle tension & spasm
- Posture correction – Reduce strain on neck
The key is being patient through an initial rest & recovery period before progressively stretching a healing neck strain. Get clearance from your doctor before starting any new therapies as well. With a smart, gradual approach focused on flexibility versus demanding range of motion too quickly, stretching can play an helpful role relieving neck discomfort and restoring strength over time. Just don’t rush into aggressive stretches until tissues have had time to properly heal.