How to Get Rid of a Tight Neck and Shoulders, According to Physical Therapists

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Tense neck muscles and tight shoulders are nearly inevitable if you spend a lot of time sitting or looking down your various screens. In fact, neck pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal disorders, affecting about a third of working-age adults.

Sitting and craning your neck, using poor posture, or not moving enough can overwork the neck and shoulder muscles, leading to pain and stiffness. Tense neck and shoulders can also result from weakness in other muscles, such as your arms, during activities that require stabilization, according to physical therapist Theresa Marko. "This weakness causes the neck muscles to activate to help stabilize the arms and shoulders," she says.

Meet the Expert

  • Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, is a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, CEO & Owner of Marko Physical Therapy PLLC, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association Media Corps.
  • Christynne Helfrich, PT, DPT, OCS, is a physical therapist at virtual physical therapy provider Hinge Health.
  • Kieran Sheridan is a sports physiotherapist at Gulfphysio.com, a sports taping and physiotherapy supply store, and the author of a popular book on sports taping.

According to Marko, the most impactful solution is strengthening your shoulder rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles to take stress off your neck and shoulders. However, for a quicker fix, there are several ways to relieve tense and tight muscles in your neck and shoulders, according to physical therapists.

01 of 10

Adjust Your Desk Setup

Let's start with one of the biggest culprits: Your desk setup. While there is no one magic position we should all be in, making sure your workstation is appropriate and specific for you can make a big difference, according to Christynne Helfrich, PT, DPT, OCS, Physical Therapist at Hinge Health.

"Making sure your monitor is at eye level can help keep your head and neck in a neutral, relaxed position; your elbows should rest comfortably on an armrest or desk. Also, ensuring your wrists are in a neutral position while typing or using the mouse can be helpful," Helfrich explains.

02 of 10

Take a Break

One of the best ways to prevent tense neck and shoulder muscles is to limit being in one position for too long. "Spending long hours at your computer or on your phone can lend itself to stiffness and pain from immobility in your neck and shoulders," Helfrich explains."Take one to two minutes every hour to move your head from side to side to help stretch out the neck and shoulder muscles."

03 of 10

Do Some Shoulder Rolls

Helfrich also recommends performing the old gym warm-up standby: Shoulder rolls. Rolling your shoulders can loosen the muscles and tendons around your shoulder joint, which relieves tension and tightness, improves blood flow, and boosts mobility.

Here are Helfrich's instructions for the best shoulder rolls: Bring your shoulders towards your ears, roll your shoulders forward, and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. Finally, bring your shoulders back to neutral. You can make the same motion in the opposite direction, so you will first elevate your shoulders towards your ears, roll your shoulders back, pinching shoulder blades together, and then finish with rolling forward and back to the starting position.

04 of 10

Use a Foam Roller

Foam rollers can soothe tight, tense neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles. Marko and sports physiotherapist Kieran Sheridan recommends myofascial release, including foam rolling, to work out muscle knots, relieve tension, improve blood flow, and reduce muscle pain.

Try lying on a foam roller so that it is under your spine with your head and hips supported. Bring your arms out to form goal posts, elbows bent at 90-degree angles with the backs of your forearms resting on the floor. Pause in this position and take five deep breaths. Slide arms up and down as comfortable while still bent and on the floor. Breathe into your back and move from the bottom of your shoulder blades up and down along with your arms.

05 of 10

Try a Massage Gun

Massage guns aren't just for athletes and gym-goers. Using a massage gun might provide relief when you are feeling tense, similar to a foam roller but much more intense and direct, and they make a good substitute for massage therapy.

Sheridan, Helfrich, and Marko each recommend trying a massage gun along with or instead of foam rolling to target smaller muscle knots and tense areas. Ensure you do not use a massage gun on your bones or joints, focusing instead on the muscles.

Angle the massage gun at 90 degrees, keeping your hand perpendicular to the handle, so you can easily turn it upside down to access your shoulders, upper back, and neck muscles. Start with the lowest speed and intensity setting, building up as you relax. Try working on each area for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

If you have a history of strokes, avoid using a massage gun on your neck and speak to a healthcare provider if you are concerned about your risk factors.

06 of 10

Get a Deep Tissue Massage

Getting a deep tissue massage is an excellent way of treating yourself to some self-care with the bonus of relieving tense neck and shoulder muscles. During a professional massage, you can zone out, meditate, relax, and enjoy the experience.

Helfrich recommends massage to help break up any trigger points within the muscles that may be causing tightness or dysfunction. "Follow any massage up with some gentle stretching to help maximize the benefit," she adds.

07 of 10

Squeeze Your Scapulae

Your scapulae, or shoulder blades, are triangle-shaped bones in your upper back connected to several upper back and shoulder muscles. According to Helfrich, you can stretch tense muscles and relieve tightness in your neck and shoulders by squeezing them together.

Performing this move is simple: "Try to pinch your shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds; repeat ten times throughout the day," says Helfrich.

08 of 10

Stretch Your Trapezius

Sheridan recommends stretching your trapezius muscles to relieve tension and tightness there and in the surrounding areas. Trap soreness and tenderness are strongly associated with neck and shoulder tension, so working on them may go a long way toward improving your symptoms.

Trap stretches include cobra pose, ear-to-shoulder stretch, and cat-cow pose. Try a soothing morning yoga flow or some energizing yoga poses to work out your neck and shoulder kinks.

09 of 10

Do Deep Belly Breathing

Breathwork and deep breathing exercises are known to help relieve stress and anxiety and soothe you into a more relaxed state, making them ideal for stress-related neck pain. According to Helfrich, stress can cause you to breathe using your upper chest muscles. "Because our body is not made to do this long term, it can lead to increased tightness and pain in the neck, shoulder, and upper back area," she explains. "Focus on breathing from your belly first to allow your body to take full, deep breaths in and out."

10 of 10

Try TrapTox

Believe it or not, Botox injections can relieve tension in your neck and shoulders. Sheridan says if all fails, then trapezius Botox is an option that can provide some relief. "Botox would deaden the nerves causing pain and can hopefully release the main issues causing the knots," he explains. However, Sheridan stresses this is a temporary measure, and there's no guarantee of long-term recovery. "In any case, I'd rather get to the root cause rather than treat the symptoms," he adds.

FAQ
  • How do I get rid of tense muscles in my neck?

    There are several ways to relieve tense neck muscles, including using a foam roller, massage gun, or deep tissue massage, strengthening the surrounding muscles, taking breaks from sitting, and performing stretches and mobility exercises.

  • Why are my neck muscles so tight?

    Tight neck muscles can result from sitting for long periods, especially if you are using poor posture or do not have an ideal desk setup. You can also have tight neck and shoulder muscles from weakness, stress, or poor form during workouts.

  • Can anxiety cause tight neck muscles?

    Anxiety and stress are linked to tension and tight neck muscles. Improper breathing or tightening the neck and shoulders can be a result of feeling the effects of stress, according to research, and may lead to pain.

Article Sources
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  2. Daneshmandi H, Choobineh A, Ghaem H, Karimi M. Adverse Effects of Prolonged Sitting Behavior on the General Health of Office WorkersJ Lifestyle Med. 2017;7(2):69-75. doi:10.15280/jlm.2017.7.2.69

  3. Adamczyk JG, Gryko K, Boguszewski D. Does the type of foam roller influence the recovery rate, thermal response and DOMS prevention? PLoS One. 2020 Jun 26;15(6):e0235195. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235195

  4. Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)J Clin Diagn Res. 2014;8(1):133-136. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2014/7294.3971

  5. Lopez-Navarro ER, Greif G, Haensch CA, Ringelstein A, Larbig R. Ischemic stroke secondary to self-inflicted carotid sinus massage: A case reportJ Med Case Reports. 2021;15(1):83. doi:10.1186/s13256-021-02680-1

  6. Kazeminasab S, Nejadghaderi SA, Amiri P, et al. Neck pain: global epidemiology, trends and risk factors. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2022;23(1):26. doi:10.1186%2Fs12891-021-04957-4

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