Should You Stretch Your Neck When It Hurts?

Neck pain is an extremely common problem that most people experience at some point in their lives. Your neck contains delicate nerves, muscles, joints, and vertebrae that can easily become irritated. When you overuse your neck muscles, sleep in an awkward position, or experience an injury, you may wake up with a stiff, sore neck.

While your first instinct may be to stretch out your neck pain, experts actually advise against stretching a sore neck in most cases. Here’s what you need to know about whether or not to stretch a painful neck.

Why You Shouldn’t Stretch a Sore Neck

Attempting to stretch an already strained neck can make pain and muscle spasms worse. Stretching causes tiny microtears in the muscle fibers. When your neck is already inflamed, stretching places excessive strain on the irritated tissues. This leads to increased pain, muscle tightness, and spasm.

You also run the risk of overstretching the joint capsules and ligaments in your neck when it is already tender. This can lead to instability and more strain on the surrounding muscles as they work to compensate. Basically, stretching an already angry neck usually backfires and causes more problems.

Another reason to avoid stretching a sore neck is that you may have an underlying injury that needs proper treatment. Stretching can exacerbate injuries such as:

  • Herniated discs
  • Pinched nerves
  • Strains or muscle tears
  • Ligament sprains

If you have severe neck pain along with numbness, tingling, or radiating pain into your shoulders and arms, you could have a disc, nerve, or spine issue. Stretching should be avoided until you see a doctor.

When Is Stretching a Painful Neck Okay?

Stretching can be beneficial if you have chronic neck tightness but no acute inflammation. For example, if you sit hunched over a computer all day, regular neck stretches may help relieve muscle tension. But only do gentle stretches after warming up the tissues through exercise or heat.

It’s also fine to continue stretching your neck if you have mild muscle soreness from a tough workout the day before. Just be sure to stop if stretching makes pain worse. Low-level muscle stiffness without acute injury can often be helped with gentle stretches combined with massage.

Stretching your neck after recovering from an injury can help retrain range of motion. But only resume stretching under the supervision of your doctor or physical therapist. They can guide you on proper neck stretches and strength training to rehab your injury.

What to Do Instead for a Sore Neck

Rather than stretching a painful neck, try these methods to find relief:

  • Apply hot or cold compresses to relax muscles and reduce inflammation.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Get a therapeutic massage to release muscle knots and tension.
  • Perform gentle range-of-motion exercises instead of stretches.
  • Maintain good posture to avoid neck strain.
  • Use a orthopedic neck pillow to support your neck during sleep.
  • Consider physical therapy for chronic neck problems.

Most neck pain can be managed with rest, heat, massage, and over-the-counter medications. But resist the temptation to aggressively stretch a sore, inflamed neck. This will usually exacerbate the problem. Let your neck rest and recover, and avoid stretching until pain subsides. With proper treatment, most neck pain will resolve within a couple weeks.