Nov 3, 2021
Stretches & Exercises

Why Neck Stretches Aren't Enough: The 2 Muscles That Matter Most

Why Neck Stretches Aren't Enough: The 2 Muscles That Matter Most

There are various types of pain, but neck pain is the most common in Americans. It can be a stiff neck, pain in your shoulders and upper back when waking up, or simply a limited range of motion. Whether the discomfort arises from chronic stiffness or the residual effects from an accident, neck pain has a way of interfering with various aspects of your life.

If you've been experiencing neck pain for a significant portion of your life, you've probably learned how to manage it using neck stretches occasionally, especially in the morning. You may think that neck stretches for pain are effective, but you'll be surprised to learn it may actually not be the best plan of action.

You probably have several questions regarding this, considering the routine has been working thus far for you. So how could it be that we are telling you neck stretches aren't enough? For the record, this isn't meant to encourage you to get rid of your stretching routine completely. Instead, it's intended to inform you that stretching alone won't help you get rid of the chronic pain you feel.

Anytime people feel some neck tightness, the first impulse is to try stretching. Sometimes it may work, but other times you experience zero results. Here is everything you need to know about why neck stretches aren't enough and the two muscles that matter when dealing with neck tightness.

Causes of neck tension

The neck has several flexible muscles that work to hold the weight of your head. If overused, these muscles can get irritated or injured. Neck tension, therefore, refers to pain in the neck that develops when the neck muscles are unable to relax, leading to muscle spasms, soreness, and even headaches.

Studies state that more than 70% of adults experience neck tension during their lifetime. Depending on the cause, people experience varying types of neck tension which have different symptoms. The brain relays electrical signals to trigger some muscle movement. In response, the muscles will either relax or contract depending on the message the brain relayed.

Neck tension occurs when a muscle in the neck remains contracted despite the brain telling it to relax. If the muscle remains contracted for an extended period, it leads to pain. People develop neck tension for several reasons, including:

Postural problems

Poor posture is a huge contributor to neck tension. People who slouch in their chair or hunch over their computer all day may notice some tension in the neck after some time. A 2016 study found a direct correlation between a forward head posture and neck pain.

Poor posture causes the weight of the head to shift away from the center of the body and forward. This then forces the neck muscles to work harder to hold the head, instead of being naturally supported by the spine. Slouching causes the head to move forward, forcing the neck to bend, thus overextending the muscles in the back of the neck. With time, this results in inflammation or pain.

Teeth grinding

Teeth grinding, also called bruxism, is when a person clenches or bites their teeth while sleeping. This then puts pressure on the neck and the jaw muscles, thus causing neck tension and pain. In other cases, it causes headaches.

Repetitive neck movements

People who engage in activities that require repetitive motion throughout the day may acquire Repetitive Motion Disorders (RMD). The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines repetitive motion disorders as a group of muscular conditions that arise from repetitive motions done in the course of daily activities or everyday work.

They are caused by unnatural motions such as incorrect posture or twisting of the arm or wrist. RMDs usually affect people who work in the assembly line, such as meatpacking, computer work, or sewing. Although they typically happen in the hands, shoulders, and wrists, they may also affect the neck. If not treated immediately, RMDs can result in inflammation, swelling, or tissue damage in severe cases.


Injuries may occur in the neck muscles if a person lifts heavy weights or experiences whiplash due to an accident. Such injuries can result in mild to severe muscle strains and, if left untreated, may lead to persistent neck pain.


Whenever the brain picks up on stress, it signals the body to release several hormones that increase heart rate and tighten muscles. For someone who experiences frequent anxiety, the muscles tend to remain contracted for a long time, thus resulting in neck tension.

Tension in pec minor

The pec minor or pectoralis minor starts from the ribs and attaches itself to the front of the shoulder blade. It has a significant effect on how the shoulder blade positions itself. The pec minor is very vulnerable and gets tight with a slumped posture. A tight pec minor leads to a forward tipped shoulder blade resulting in a rounded shoulder position.

If you catch sight of yourself from the side, and your shoulders are rounded forward, creating a rounded upper back and outstretched neck, the culprit is your pec minor muscles. Relaxing these muscles will help bring your body back into upright alignment.

If the shoulder blades are pulled forward, the spine will curve, forcing the neck to extend so that the head can continue pointing forward. This leads to a strain on the neck and leads to tightening of the neck muscles.

The difference between stretching and pressing a muscle

Stretching and pressing a muscle are two different techniques that people use whenever they feel some muscle tightness. They are both ways of addressing muscle tightness. When stretching a muscle, you're elongating it by undertaking a particular movement with your body. If, for example, you do an upper back stretch, your brain signals the body to release some tension. With continuous stretching, the brain reprograms the signals so that you can stretch a bit further every time by warming the muscle-up.

When you put prolonged pressure on a muscle, it will increase circulation and inhibit the contraction of muscle fibers. Holding the muscle in one place for a long time without any motion results in the brain signaling the particular muscle to relax. Prolonged pressure is vital for releasing muscle tension in areas where you're experiencing muscle knots.

Tight muscles require pressure

Although stretching your neck feels like a great way of releasing muscle tension, it's not always the best approach. Stretching is an excellent way of increasing motion, circulation and informing the muscle how it can repair itself after a workout. However, stretching might only do the bare minimum if your muscle has tension (is contracted). Your muscles will elongate, but when you rest, the muscle tightness returns. If you're looking for a good way of getting your muscles to relax, apply prolonged pressure.

If you introduce pressure on the area with a finger or tool, the brain will respond by releasing pain signals at first. After some time of prolonged pressure (preferably 90 seconds), the muscle will start to relax in a long-term way without worrying about the muscle knot returning. This technique is way more effective in releasing muscle tension and muscle knots compared to massaging and stretching.

Tools for tight necks

You'll need a tool to provide specific angular pressure to reach and release these spots to relax the neck. Because you need to apply prolonged pressure, you want something anatomically-shaped to access these muscles (not something round!) that isn't going to slide or roll, that can handle pressure, and is able to adapt to your body and isolate these small yet mighty muscles.

We recommend the Nuckle: It's designed by a PT to release, relax, and realign the neck and shoulders. With three widths and six angles, it can adjust to everybody and apply clinically effective specific pressure to relax tight muscles and reduce pain.

woman using Nuckle tool to relieve neck tension

Frequently asked questions about neck pain and neck tightness

What causes a stiff neck?

Oftentimes, a stiff neck is caused by contracted muscles (usually the suboccipitals) that won’t relax. Overtime, these muscles pull the adjacent structures out of alignment. The root cause can be poor posture, created by tension in the pec minor muscles.  

How do I get rid of a stiff neck?

Releasing two key muscle groups can help with neck stiffness: the suboccipitals at the base of the skull and pec minor muscles in the chest. The best way to relax these muscles is to apply direct, prolonged pressure to the muscles with a tool that can access these hard-to-reach muscles.

How do I treat a stiff neck in 60 seconds?

Focus on these two muscles: pec minor in the chest and the suboccipitals at the base of the skull. Apply precise, prolonged pressure to these muscles for at least 30-90 seconds to allow the muscles to release. Rubbing back and forth can aggravate these muscles, and stretching only provides temporary relief.