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The Different Types of Neck Pain and How Yoga Can Help

What’s that pain in your neck? 

Neck pain is one of the most common types of pain that people experience. Luckily, yoga can help!

There are several types of neck pain that can take on various forms.

Neck pain may range from a dull ache, to debilitating pain that radiates from the neck down into the arm.

4 Types of Neck Pain

The four types of neck pain we’ll dive into in this article are:

  1.  Axial Neck Pain
  2. Radicular Pain
  3. Referred Pain
  4. Myelopathic Pain

1. Axial Neck Pain

Axial neck pain, or mechanical pain, is the most common type of neck pain. 

This kind of pain is usually caused by a muscle or ligament strain.

It could also be caused by disc degeneration where the gel-like cushioning in the cervical discs has started to wear down. 

Another cause of axial neck pain could be facet joint dysfunction, which involves the small pair of facet joints at the back of each vertebra.

This type of dysfunction may be diagnosed or labeled as facet joint osteoarthritis, facet joint arthritis, or spondylosis.

Vertebral bone fracture could also be the cause of axial neck pain. This involves a small fracture in one or more of the cervical vertebrae.

This type of pain is typically contained in one park of the neck and does not radiate or move.

Usually this kind of pain can be described as an ache, or throbbing sensation, but could also feel like a stinging, sharp pain. 

A strain or sprain can also lead to a stiff neck or inability to turn the head.

2. Radicular Pain

Radicular pain typically occurs when a nerve root is irritated or inflamed by a bone spur or cervical disc herniation. 

Because radicular pain involves the nerve, the pain can be described as a searing pain or feel like an electric shock.

It can range from an achy sensation to a burning or shocking sensation. 

This type of pain may radiate all the way down into the arm or hand. Some movements or head positions might exacerbate this type of pain.

3. Referred Pain

Referred pain can feel similar to radicular pain but the main difference is that the nerve root is not the cause of the pain.

Typically this pain is not felt at the source. The pain is spread out and feels more like an achy, throbbing, or cramping sensation. 

The pain may be referred to the neck by the heart or the jaw. If the problem or pathology occurs in the neck, it may be referred to the upper back, shoulders, or to the head as a headache. 

4. Myelopathic Pain

Myelopathic Pain may develop when the spinal cord is compressed.

Cervical spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal narrows due to degeneration or trauma and can cause myelopathy. 

This can result in pain, numbness, weakness, and even loss of coordination. 

It’s possible to experience more than one of these types of pain. And certain spinal pathologies may lead to multiple types of pain. 

Acute VS Chronic Pain

Most pain can be divided into two categories: acute pain, or chronic pain.

Acute pain usually follows an injury like a neck strain or sleeping wrong. Acute pain usually goes away within a few weeks.

Chronic pain on the other hand lasts three months or more and usually starts gradually. 

Usually axial neck pain is acute pain. It’s caused by a muscle or ligament strain which could occur when:

  • you sleep with the neck at an awkward angle
  • you spend a lot of time on a phone or laptop with the neck angled down
  • you carry something heavy on one arm
  • or from sudden impact like whiplash from a sports injury or car accident
  • some people may even develop acute neck pain from having tight neck muscles and laughing or sneezing suddenly with the head at an awkward angle

Chronic neck pain could include any of the other four types of pain discussed, radicular pain, referred pain, and myelopathic pain.

Chronic pain can also be accompanied by depression. 

Because the pain lasts for so long and can disturb your ability to enjoy daily life, feelings of isolation and diminished quality of life may accompany chronic pain. 

How to Use Yoga to Help with Neck Pain

While yoga and breathwork may not be able to solve all the problems that lead to neck pain, it can certainly help many types.

Trapezius: Watch this TikTok

Cat Cow

  • For Cat Cow, begin in a tabletop position on all fours. 
  • As you inhale, reach your belly towards the mat, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and lift your tailbone. 
  • As you exhale, round the spine, tuck your chin towards chest, and tuck your tailbone. 
  • Repeat several times.

Neck Release Pose

  • Begin in a comfortable seated position. 
  • Place your right hand on the mat next to your hip. 
  • Extend your left arm and reach your fingertips towards the ground without touching the ground. 
  • Slowly lower your right ear towards your right shoulder to a comfortable position. 
  • Hold for several deep breaths, about 5. 
  • Repeat on the other side. 

Eagle Arms

  • Begin in a comfortable seated position. 
  • Open your arms out in a T shape. 
  • Cross your right arm under your left, hooking your elbows. Either bring the backs of your hands together, cross your wrists so your palms touch, or if those positions aren’t accessible, hug your shoulders with your hands. 
  • Rest your forehead into your arms if possible, or relax your chin to a neutral position. 
  • Breathe into your upper back for several deep breaths, about 5. 
  • Repeat on the other side. 

Gomukhasana Arms

  • Sit comfortably.
  • Reach your right arm up and bend your elbow as if you were trying to pat yourself on the back. Place your right hand on your upper back.
  • Use your left arm to gently press your right elbow back, deepening the stretch. If this is enough, stay here.
  • If you want more, internally rotate your left shoulder and reach your left arm up your back in an attempt to link hands. 
  • If your hands don’t touch, grab a yoga strap or pieces of your shirt to hold your hands in place. 
  • Hold for several deep breaths, about 5. 
  • Repeat on the other side. 

Levator Scapulae: Watch This TikTok

Levator Scapula Stretch

  • Reach your right arm up and place your fingertips on your shoulder blade.
  • Push the shoulder blade down.
  • Tilt your head down and to the left at a 45 degree angle. 
  • You can also use your left hand to help assist the stretch. NOTE: Do not push with your left hand, use it as extra weight. 
  • Hold for several deep breaths, about 5, and repeat on the other side. 

Modified Levator Scapula Stretch - Doorway Version

  • If you can’t raise your arm over your head, try using a doorway instead. 
  • Set up standing next to a doorway with your right arm at a 90 degree angle in the doorway.
  • Tilt your chin to 45 degrees - down and to the left.
  • Add extra weight to the stretch if needed by resting your left hand on the back of your head.
  • Hold for several deep breaths, about 5, and repeat on the other side. 

Sternocleidomastoid: Watch This TikTok

Sternocleidomastoid Stretch

  • Locate the sternocleidomastoid and use your fingers to pin down the attachment of the muscle at the collarbone. Use the left hand to pin down the right sternocleidomastoid so your arm is crossed in front of your chest.
  • Turn your head away from the side that you’re stretching and lean your head back slightly. 

Scalenes:

Scalene Release

  • Set up like Neck Release pose by starting in a comfortable seat. 
  • Place your right hand on the mat next to your hip. 
  • Extend your left arm and reach your fingertips towards the ground without touching the ground. 
  • Slowly lower your right ear towards your right shoulder to a comfortable position. 
  • Next, drop your bottom jaw so your mouth hangs slightly open. Then slide the bottom jaw up towards the left ear.
  • You should feel the deeper neck muscles, the scalenes, stretching. It may feel like a slight pull from the side of your head down to the collarbone. 
  • Hold for several deep breaths, about 5. 
  • Repeat on the other side. 

More poses for neck tension:

Forward Fold with Neck Traction

  • Begin standing with your feet wider than hip width distance apart.
  • Hinge from your hips to lower the upper body down into a forward fold. 
  • Keep your knees slightly bent so your belly can rest on your thighs.
  • Clasp your hands together at the base of your skull. For more traction, hug your forearms around your jaw. 
  • Allow the head to hang heavy. Do not use your hands to pull, instead let gravity do the work. 
  • If this feels too intense, you can also use your hands to hold your hair.
  • Stay for as long as you’re comfortable, about five breaths. 
  • Release your hands and come up to standing slowly.

Neck Release over a Block (Self Massage Technique)

  • Begin lying down and place the edge of a yoga block at the occipital ridge. The block should sit at an angle going with the neck rather than away from it. If the angled block feels unstable, rest it against a second yoga block for stability. 
  • Relax your head and neck into the block and breathe deeply. 
  • Once you feel your muscles begin to relax, tilt your chin very slowly towards the right moving in small increments. Then repeat tilting the chin slowly to the left. 
  • Move as slowly as possible. 
  • If you find a knot or a spot that needs extra attention, cross fiber the muscle by tilting your chin up and down along the knot. 
  • Stay for as long as you’d like, up to several minutes. 
  • To come out of the pose, support the back of your head with one hand and lift your head up slightly. Use the other hand to move the block(s) out of the way. Then lay your head down on the ground. 
  • Roll to the side in the fetal position and press yourself up to a seat with a relaxed neck. 

Savasana with Neck Support

  • Using a folded blanket, make a small roll on one side of the blanket. The roll should be just big enough to support the curve of the cervical spine. 
  • Lay the blanket on your mat with the roll towards the center of the mat and the flat part at the back of the mat. 
  • Lie down with your neck on the roll and your head on the flat part of the blanket. 
  • Lay in Savasana for as long as you’d like, several minutes or up to 20 minutes. Only stay for as long as you’re comfortable. 

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Other Ways to Alleviate Neck Pain

Yoga can be beneficial for neck pain, but sometimes more help is needed.

Modify Your Activity

After an injury like a strain or sprain, it’s important to modify your activity.

Continuing to push through the pain may cause the injury to last longer or worsen. Take time to rest and heal and refrain from doing anything strenuous.

Ice & Heat Therapy

Ice the area of injury for the first 48 hours. Ice helps reduce swelling. After the first 48 hours, apply heat to help circulate blood flow to the area which will encourage tissue repair.

Whether applying ice or heat, keep a layer between the skin and ice or heat source. Apply ice or heat for 10-20 minutes and rest in between. 

Chiropractic Care

A trained chiropractor can make adjustments to the spine to help realign the joints.

Massage

Massage therapy can help loosen up stiff muscles and provide relief.

Other Ways to Alleviate Pain

  • Over the counter pain medication
  • foam rolling
  • acupuncture
  • electrotherapy applied by a physical therapist
  • aquatic exercise
  • core and back strengthening
  • sleeping in an optimum position based on your injury
  • focus on posture throughout the day
Adriana Lee
Adriana Lee
Adriana's yoga journey began at a young age and continues to inspire her every day by healing mind, body and spirit through the breath. She received her 200 Hour RYT through Frog Lotus Yoga's center, Suryalila, in Adalusia, Spain. She also trained an additional 50 hours with Heba Saab at Body Heat Hot Yoga in Las Vegas, NV. She continued training with Heba by assisting and acting as a mentor to her 200 Hour trainees. She trained with Cameron Shayne in Miami and received a 50 Hour certification in the Budokon Yoga system. She is also a certified Pilates instructor and a Reiki Level 2 practitioner. Her yoga practice has brought sweetness and authenticity into her life and her intention is to share that sweetness and help her students strive to be their own authentic selves.