Ease Your Neck

These 4 exercises help stave off stiffness and keep muscles strong, flexible, and pain free.

Ease Your Neck
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Our necks work hard every day, supporting the weight of our heads whether we're in motion or sitting still. Yet most of us don't give this vital body part much thought until we wake up one morning and feel stiffness or pain. Even though this discomfort can be aggravated by carrying a heavy load on one shoulder or sleeping in an awkward position, an achy neck is also a normal part of growing older. As we age, the disks that serve as cushions between the upper vertebrae gradually lose their thickness. "It's like a tire going flat," says Doug Kelsey, president of Sports Center, a physical therapy practice in Austin, Texas. "Over time, the bones literally squish the disks." When this happens, your body compensates by shifting the weight of your head from your neck to your joints; this can cause shoulder and arm pain.

Fortunately, as with many age-related health issues, staying active can help reverse the condition. "A number of studies show that with gentle, regular exercise you can actually increase disks' thickness and improve their health," Kelsey says. This series of at-home exercises, designed by Kelsey, can do just that: Two are for instant pain relief and two help maintain neck strength to prevent future flare-ups.

Rock and Roll
1. Lie on your back with your head and neck cradled against the partially inflated beach ball, your knees bent to 90 degrees, and your calves propped up on the stability ball.

2. Roll your head slowly to the right and then slowly to the left, going only as far to each side as feels comfortable. Continue until pain subsides.

Rx: If the pain is acute, do this exercise every 3 to 5 minutes. If the pain is less intense, do it once every 2 to 3 hours.

Benefit: Slow, oscillating movements relieve aches by activating pain-soothing receptors in the joints.

1. Lie on your back with your head and neck cradled against the beach ball, your knees bent to 90 degrees and your calves propped up on the stability ball. Place your arms out to your sides, elbows bent to 90 degrees and your palms facing up. Your forearms should be on the floor.

2. Inhale deeply, then exhale and slowly straighten your elbows, sliding both arms up toward your head and bringing your upper arms as close to your ears as possible. Once you've raised your arms as far as they will go, hold the position for 30 seconds.

3. Inhale, then exhale and slowly slide both arms back down to the starting position.

Rx: Do 1 set of 10 repetitions every hour--or as needed--for pain.

Benefits: Stretches the rhomboid muscles (located in the middle of your upper back) and improves flexibility in the thoracic spine to reduce pressure on the neck.