Strength training relieves chronic neck pain

Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals

Most of us are troubled by neck pain at some point in our lives. The most common culprit is overuse or misuse of muscles and ligaments. Today's computer-dominated workplace can be especially tough on necks, because so many of us sit for long periods with shoulders slumped and heads extended toward monitors.

Considerable study has been devoted to the treatment of chronic neck pain. The choices include medications, chiropractic manipulation, electrical nerve stimulation, massage, and various forms of exercise. Results so far have been inconsistent and difficult to compare, and the quality of research has been uneven. Still, there's mounting evidence that certain exercises designed to strengthen neck muscles can help break longstanding cycles of neck pain.

A randomized trial has found that women with work-related neck pain experienced significant and long-lasting relief by regularly practicing five specific neck muscle–strengthening exercises. General fitness workouts, by contrast, reduced the pain only slightly. Results were published in the January 2008 issue of Arthritis Care and Research.

The study

Danish scientists at the National Research Center for the Working Environment in Copenhagen recruited women engaged in repetitive work, mostly at computer keyboards, at banks, post offices, administrative offices, and an industrial facility. All complained of neck pain lasting more than a month during the previous year. They were eligible for the study if physical examinations showed they had trapezius myalgia — chronic pain and tightness in the muscles that run down the back of the neck and fan out toward the shoulders.

Participants were divided randomly into three groups. One group received strength training focused on neck and shoulder muscles. The second group received general fitness training, which consisted of riding an exercise bike without holding onto the handlebars. The third group was given only health counseling. The two exercise groups worked out for 20 minutes three times a week for 10 weeks.

The women rated pain intensity in the trapezius muscles immediately before and immediately after each training session and two hours after each workout. The strength training group experienced a 75% decrease in pain, on average, during the intervention as well as during a 10-week follow-up period involving no workouts. General fitness training resulted in only a short-term decrease in pain that was too small to be considered clinically important, although the researchers did suggest that even a little reduction in pain severity could encourage people to give exercise a try. There was no improvement in the health counseling group.

This study isn't the final word on relieving chronic neck pain. The number of participants (48) was small, and most of the women were under age 60. The results may not apply to women who are older or have conditions that limit their ability to strength train. Still, the findings suggest that performing specific muscle-strengthening exercises may be a helpful strategy for many women with chronic neck pain. (The researchers have investigated the effectiveness of each exercise with electromyography, which measures muscle-generated electrical activity. Results will be published in the journal Physical Therapy.)

The exercises

Strength training in the Danish study consisted of five exercises that involved the use of hand weights to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles. Three times a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), for 20 minutes per session, participants performed three of the five exercises, doing three sets of eight to 12 repetitions (each set lasting 25 to 35 seconds) for each exercise. The exercises changed from session to session but always included dumbbell shrugs. The weight load was gradually increased during the study, roughly doubling in 10 weeks.

This was an intensive program and study participants were carefully supervised. So before you embark on a similar regimen, consult a physical therapist or exercise specialist who can help design a program for your needs and make sure that you're doing the exercises correctly. In the exercises pictured here, the starting weights in parentheses are those used in the study. For each exercise, you should start with a weight that allows a maximum of eight to 12 repetitions.

Dumbbell shrug

Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a weight in each hand, and allow your arms to hang down at your sides, with your palms facing your body. Shrug your shoulders upward, contracting the upper trapezius muscle, hold for one count, and lower. Repeat eight to 12 times per set. (Starting weight: 17 to 26 pounds.)

One-arm row

Stand with your left knee on a flat bench and your right foot on the floor. Hold a weight in your right hand. Bend your torso forward, placing your left hand on the bench for support. Allow the weighted hand to hang down toward the floor. Pull the weight up until your upper arm is parallel with your back, pause, and then lower it. Repeat eight to 12 times per set. Switch to the left side, and repeat. (Starting weight: 13 to 22 pounds.)

Upright row

Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the weights down in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your body. Slowly bring the weights straight up, as if you were zipping up a jacket. Slowly lower the weights to their original position. Repeat eight to 12 times per set. (Starting weight: 4 to 11 pounds.)

Reverse fly

Lie on a bench at a 45-degree angle. Hold a weight in each hand and allow your arms to extend down toward the floor. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, lift the weights up and out to the side to about shoulder level. Slowly lower the weights. Repeat eight to 12 times per set. (Starting weight: 2 to 6 pounds.)

Lateral raise

Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Lift your arms up to the sides until they are parallel with the floor. Your elbows should be slightly bent. Slowly lower your arms. Repeat eight to 12 times per set. (Starting weight: 4 to 9 pounds.)