Is your workout giving you a stiff neck?

Try these quick fixes to stay active and avoid neck pain.

Physical activity is important to feeling great and staying healthy. But the wrong execution of a particular move, such as a golf swing or swimming stroke, may wind up causing neck pain. "Often people don't realize their activity is to blame," says Emily Roy, a physical therapist with the Sports Medicine Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

What goes wrong

Neck pain may result from overuse of muscles in the neck and shoulder (many shoulder muscles also attach to the neck), strain on the joints in the neck, or a pinched nerve in the neck or shoulder area.

Roy says one of the biggest contributors to neck pain is poor posture during an activity. "Instead of pulling the chin down for a neutral posture, some people keep the chin forward and shoulders slouched. That makes the chin stick out and creates tension in the neck and surrounding muscles," Roy explains.

The trapezius muscle takes the brunt of that stress. It's a large diamond-shaped muscle that starts at the base of the skull, widens at the shoulders, and reaches halfway down the back.

"It's a dull, achy pain," Roy says. "Or you may get headaches from the muscles at the base of the skull. In the extended neck position, they tighten and get irritated."

Avoiding neck pain

Here are some ways in which common activities lead to neck pain, and quick fixes to counteract bad form.

Cycling. Leaning over to reach the handlebars of a road or mountain bike can cause you to round your back and hunch your shoulders up to your ears.

Quick fix: Bring your shoulder blades down and back as you lean forward. "It's a subtle motion while still leaning forward. Get your shoulders away from your ears, slightly arch your back, and stick out your chest," Roy explains.

Gardening. Crouching and looking down, reaching very far and lifting heavy objects all stretch your neck in a way that strains neck muscles.

Quick fix: Pull your chin back as you look down; take frequent breaks; stay close to the area you are working in; use your leg muscles to help lift heavy objects.

Swimming. When doing the crawl, always turning your head to the same side to breathe builds muscles on one side of the neck, and shortens muscles on the other side; doing the breaststroke may strain neck muscles.

Quick fix: Alternate swimming strokes (crawl, breaststroke) periodically; when doing the crawl, alternate the breathing side occasionally.

Golf. Extending the neck while you swing causes tension; carrying a golf bag on the same side all the time leads to uneven muscles and pain.

Quick fix: Bring your chin toward your neck as you look down at the ball so your neck is not extended; alternate shoulder sides when you carry a golf bag.

Yoga. Looking up when doing a "downward dog" position can extend the neck; turning your neck too far when looking behind you can stress the neck joints.

Quick fix: Keep your chin toward your neck for a neutral position; limit how far you turn your head.

Move of the month

Neck stretching: Side-bending range of motion

  • Face forward and let your head bend slowly to the side.

  • Hold three seconds and repeat on the other side.

  • Repeat 10 times.

  • Do this exercise slowly and gently.

  • For an additional stretch, when your head is bent to the side, let it roll slowly forward about 45 degrees and hold it there for three seconds.

Relief and prevention

Gentle stretches may help relieve your neck pain (see "Move of the month"). "Slowly tip the head to the side — ear to shoulder — then do the same on the other side. But don't do this if it increases pain," warns Roy.

Remember that using the proper form during physical activity prevents neck pain. So does strengthening the neck, shoulder, and core muscles.

For more ideas, you can check out the Harvard Special Health Report Neck Pain (www.health.harvard.edu/neck).

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