pilates for neck pain

Pilates Exercises for Chronic Neck Pain

Approximately 80% of people will suffer from neck pain at some point in their life. Whether it’s sitting looking at a screen for long periods or lack of movement, our modern lives can easily cause us to feel stiffness in the neck and shoulders. 

Another cause for neck and back pain may be weak muscles in the core and supporting the spine. Strengthening these muscles is a great way to avoid pain.

Pilates is one of the best forms of exercise for creating strength and stability in the body. What is Pilates? It’s a series of movements and activations in the body made in a sequence to help you strengthen and condition your muscles.

Read on to learn more about how to do Pilates to help with your neck pain. 

1. MET Stretch

The best way of relieving neck pain and discomfort is by doing neck stretches. For this particular stretch, it is called Muscle Energy Technique Stretch (MET). This stretch requires the muscles to be in an elongated position while engaging the muscles slightly to relieve it. 

Starting by; 

  1. Sitting on the chair leaning back to the back rest as much as you can 
  2. Bring over your hand the opposite ear from the top and stretch the upper neck muscles and the other hand holding on to the chair.  
  3. Once it’s in a stretch position, contract the upper neck at 20% contraction and hold for 5-10 seconds for 5 repetition. 
  4. Be aware not to shrug the shoulders 
  5. Try to get more range of motion after every repetition

2. Neck Retractions

Neck flexors are responsible to retract the head towards the middle of your shoulders, so that the head would be sitting directly on the cervical and thoracic spine. Weak neck flexors would cause forward head postures and tension on the upper neck muscles that would cause a lot of pain and discomfort. Therefore, strengthening the neck retractors would be ideal to solve that problem

  1. On a sitting position, putting your index and middle finger on your chin 
  2. Imagine drawing your chin to the back of the spine, feeling the tension at the front of the neck with your other hand
  3. Making sure not to nod the head or flex the neck. 
  4. Do it for 15 repetitions for 3-4 sets 

3. Neck Rolls

One of the most straightforward exercises you can perform daily to help reduce tightness and soreness in the neck muscles is neck rolls. You can be gentle with this exercise to ease into your pilates practice.

Neck rolls are the perfect way to stretch the muscles and tendons in your neck and release the tension you may be holding around your upper (cervical) spine. 

It’s best to do this exercise while standing. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
  2. Engage your core slightly and relax the shoulders
  3. Gently move your left ear over to the left shoulder 
  4. Then try the same on the right
  5. This will gently warm up your neck muscles
  6. You can then start to take small semi-circles with your head
  7. Drop the chin to your chest, move your head to one side, then the other
  8. Then, if it feels comfortable, you can build up to making full circles with your head
  9. Keep in mind that full circles may be too much for you so take it slow
  10. You can also use your hands to support your head and gently move it from side to side using your hands
  11. When performing this movement, you should keep your spine straight; don’t arch or hunch your back

4. Scapula Movement & Stabilization

The neck movement is highly associated to the scapula and arm movements. Therefore it is important to understand how to stabilise the scapula , gliding along the ribcage without winging or tipping throughout movements. So, understanding the movements of the scapula would be beneficial to reduce any tension of the neck.

  1. Protraction and retraction of scapula. Starting out on a sitting position, raise your hand forward, palm facing together, shoulder distance apart
  2. The protraction movement is when you draw your fingers forward towards the front without changing the distance between the shoulders and arm, gliding the scapula away from the spine
  3. Retraction is when you drnaw your shoulder blades towards the spine without shrugging the shoulders
  4. Elevation and depression of the scapula. Starting out my lying down on a mat, draw your fingers down towards the heel, scapula glides downwards
  5. Elevation is when you draw the shoulders towards the ears
  6. Outward and downward rotation , continue lygin down, raise your hands up towards the ceiling and over then circle the arm around and towards the hips
  7. Throughout the arm rises exercise, the scapula should not feel restrictive and gliding along the ground smoothly

5. The Swimmer

An excellent move for conditioning your deep abdominal muscles. When you first learn how to do Pilates, you will discover that a lot of the movements are helpful for deep conditioning of the abdominals. 

Having a strong core is vital for posture and ensuring you don’t put pressure on other muscles. 

Here’s how to do the swimmer:

  1. Lie on your belly with arms out in front, palms facing down
  2. Lift the opposite arm and leg as you inhale
  3. Exhale to release the limbs back to the floor
  4. Repeat on the other side
  5. Do about 6-8 reps on each side
  6. Try not to overextend your neck when you complete this movement; do this by keeping your ear in line with your shoulder as you lift your arm
  7. Keep your core engaged throughout

6. Swan Dive

This is a straightforward exercise and can help you with improving your posture. The movement creates space between your neck and shoulders which may be hunched due to long periods of sitting down. 

Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Lay on your mat face down, hands under your forehead
  2. Keeping your chin in a neutral position, slowly lift the chest away from the mat as you exhale
  3. Uses your core muscles to help support the lift away from the mat
  4. To ensure you keep your neck neutral, imagine you are holding a tennis ball underneath your chin
  5. Hold the position for a few breaths and then release back down to the mat
  6. Repeat for a few rounds

7. Pelvic Tilts

As you know, everything in the body is connected. So if you suffer from neck pain, it isn’t just neck stretches you should focus on. You can work on other areas of the body related to keeping a strong posture and reducing neck and upper back pain.  

Pelvic tilts are a fantastic way to wake up the deep muscles in the core. Here’s how: 

  1. Lay on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor
  2. Keep your arms long by your side, shoulders neutral
  3. Inhale and fill your belly with air
  4. As you exhale, gently draw your belly button to your spine, pushing the lower back into the mat while slightly lifting the pelvis
  5. Hold for a breath and then release
  6. Repeat for several repetitions

8. Bridge

This is a simple and easy pose to release tightness throughout the spinal column. You can use props to support the posture and make it more restorative than active. 

  1. Lay on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor
  2. Lift your hips up away from the mat, using your glutes to support you
  3. Keep the spine relaxed and in a neutral position on the mat
  4. Hold for ten breaths 
  5. Slowly release the pose, vertebrae by vertebrae

9. Side Plank

Side plank exercise is a progression that you can do, which can be done to challenge the scapula stabilisers and understand the alignment of the head, cervical and thoracic spine. 

  1. Starting out in a plank position on the elbows, shoulder distance apart
  2. Stabilising the scapula by doing a slight protraction and depression of the scapula
  3. Slowly shift your weight to one side of the arm, lowering the heels down, lifting the movement arm towards the ceiling, engaging the deltoid and obliques muscles all together 
  4. Repeat to the other side while engaging the core throughout

Things to Keep in Mind For Pilates Exercises

You need to keep in mind a few things when you complete these exercises. To stay healthy and safe, follow these guidelines: 

  • You should not feel any pain 
  • If you feel shooting pain or severe discomfort in any way, you should stop
  • Don’t make the movements too quickly; you should make the transition to each exercise slowly
  • Try not to overstretch and stay within your limits; the neck is very delicate so treat it that way! 
  • Don’t forget to breathe! Holding your breath can make the movements more complex and cause you to hold onto tension in your body. 

Get Started With Pilates

If you’ve never done Pilates before and want to try it out as a solution to your neck pain, start with going to a Pilates studio. The teachers will assess your personal situation and advise on movements specific to your abilities to help you solve your pain. 

Watch and follow along “How to Eliminate Neck Pain & Discomfort” with Pilates Youtube video by STOTT PILATES Instructor Mary Leou from our Malaysia team.

You can also subscribe to Pilatique’s pilates videos in Youtube to learn and follow along.