If you’ve ever experienced a stiff neck before, then you understand how uncomfortable, awkward and painful it can be. While neck pain from a stiff neck tends to disappear on its own within a few minutes, hours or week or two at worst, it’s still not a fun condition to deal with or tolerate. Getting massage therapy for stiff neck is one of the quickest ways to ease this issue and get back to normal. Unfortunately, due to either time or money constraints, not everyone can afford to go to a massage therapist anytime their neck feels tense or is in pain. Learning how to massage a stiff neck by yourself is a much easier and affordable way to deal with this case. If you have been trying to give yourself a stiff neck massage at home with no luck or relief, then you are in the right place. Stick around to learn the causes of this condition and how to avoid them, stiff neck massage points to help relieve this pain fast, and much more.
What Does Stiff Neck Feel Like And What Causes It?
The neck, like any other body part, is made up of a complex network of bones and tissue that together to not only support the head and its movements, but also are prone to injury or tension from overuse.
When the neck is stiff, you will find it hard to move your neck and turn your neck. According to the MayoClinic some symptoms associated with this issue include
- Numbness or tingling in the neck. This feeling sometimes extends to the shoulders and even further down to the arms.
- Tight muscles or muscle spasms.
- A decreased ability to move the head due to the aforementioned tight muscles.
- Neck pain – it should be noted that this pain is often worsened by holding the pain in one position, which is terrible since holding the head in one position is sometimes the only temporary relief.
- Headaches – Neck problems will often irritate, strain, or compress the nerves in the neck, which could trigger a headache.
The first step in fixing any problem is knowing and understanding what causes it. Some factors that could be causing pain in your neck include
- Poor posture – This is very likely the major culprit of most neck pains experienced by both office workers and students.
The act of leaning over a workbench, computer or to read a book puts a strain in the neck muscles which eventually leads to pain. Try placing your laptop or book at eye level to ensure that you aren’t slouching for long periods.
- Awkward sleeping posture – If you’ve ever woken up with neck pain, this is the most likely reason.
According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, the best sleeping postures that will reduce the likelihood of this happening again are sleeping on your back or on your side. Getting a proper pillow for each sleeping position is also essential.
- Stress and other mental health issues – In a study published in early 2022, researchers found that people who experience higher stress levels are more likely to experience neck pain than those with lower stress levels (9).
In a review study done on teenage participants and published in 2019, researchers found that including stress and other psychological issues like depression, anxiety, catastrophizing, as well as a lack of social support increases the instances of neck pain in adolescents (10).
- Trauma to the neck – This is likely due to either falling, car accidents or sports injuries that somehow affect the neck area.
- Whiplash – This is a type of injury that occurs when the neck is suddenly jerked forward and backward. According to Medical News Today, whiplash affects the muscles, bones, ligaments, or nerves in the neck, either individually or all at once.
- Arthritis – When we think of arthritis, most people think of the feet, hands, hips, knees, and the lower back as these are the body parts most commonly affected by this illness.
However, arthritis doesn’t discriminate and will affect any body part with bones and joints. Cervical spondylosis is the name of arthritis that affects the spinal disks in your neck and one of its symptoms is a stiff painful neck (2).
- Meningitis – Caused by a bacterial infection, this illness leads to an inflammation of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Stiff neck is one of the many symptoms that people suffering from this disease are likely to experience (8).
Can A Massage Help With Stiff Neck Pain?
Yes, it can. Massage therapy for stiff neck is one of the many treatments available for this condition. It should be noted that a massage will not work everytime as the best treatment for this issue is largely dependent on what caused it.
If you suspect that your neck pain is the cause of either poor posture i.e. slouching, an awkward sleeping position, trauma or whiplash, then massaging will very likely elevate the pain. For more serious issues – or if a massage doesn’t work -, it would be best to speak to a doctor and probably seek medication.
How To Massage Stiff Neck To Relieve Pain & Discomfort
When it comes to massages, you can either choose to do it yourself or to seek a professional with better knowledge. If you’d prefer to see a professional to help relieve this pain, Spine Health suggests asking for either (7)
- A Swedish massage – This massage is done using long steady strokes and well as some kneading and friction motions. As the Swedish massage helps promote circulation and relaxation, it might be better suited for those who experience stress induced stiff neck pain.
- Deep tissue massage – Unlike the Swedish massage, the deep tissue one focuses on muscles and connective tissues, which means that the masseuse will be using deeper strokes and more friction.
Studies over the years have shown that deep tissue massages can not only help manage pain and increase your range of motion, but they can also aid recovery after injury (3, 4). In light of this, for those suffering from neck pains caused by some kind of muscle strain or sprain, this would be the best massage to ask for.
At Home Stiff Neck Massage: A Holistic Approach
If you’d prefer to just learn how to manage this pain away yourself, then learning about stiff neck massage points is a great way to help you better target the pain next time. The theory of massage points aka pressure points can be traced back to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Indian Ayurveda and Siddha medicine, as well as martial arts.
Touching or massaging these areas can help induce or relieve pain depending on how the points are touched and the pressure used. This practice, also known as acupressure, has been used for over 2,000 years and continues to benefit many people around the world today in terms of pain management:
- According to one study review published in 2012 in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, researchers found that acupressure is effective in helping pain management on laboring women, girls and women suffering from dysmenorrhea – painful menstrual periods which are caused by uterine contractions -, as well as trauma victims (13).
- Another review published in the Pain Management Nursing journal found that not only does this practice help with labor pains, dysmenorrhea and traumatic pain as mentioned above, but it is also effective in reducing low back pains and chronic headaches too (11).
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Where To Massage For Stiff Neck Tension And Pain
The easiest and best way to massage a stiff neck -even without a knowledge of acupressure – is to directly target the aching area. To do this:
- Start by relaxing your shoulders. Lower them from your ears and slowly straighten the neck and back.
- Using your fingers, locate the painful areas in your neck and carefully but firmly press these areas using two to three fingers.
- Gently press and massage the area using a circular motion. Massage in a clockwise direction for 15 to 30 seconds then switch to anti-clockwise direction for another 15 to 30 seconds.
- Do this consistently for three to five minutes.
For acupressure massage techniques, try targeting the following points:
Also known as GB21 or the “shoulder well”, it is located at the highest point of the shoulder – about halfway between your neck and where your arms begin. Find this point and press on it firmly with your fingers while gently stretching your neck toward your opposite shoulder. Massaging this pressure point has also been found to be effective in relieving labor pains, especially in the first stage of this process (12).
The beauty or acupressure is that you do not directly need to directly massage the neck to relieve pain in that area. Also known as L14 or the “joining valley”, it is located between the base of your thumb and index (pointer) finger.
This point is said to help relieve headaches, neck or facial pain as well as stress. This point is also used to treat peripheral circulatory failure. Ps. Pregnant women are warned to avoid massaging this point (1).
Referred to as GB20 or the “wind pool”, it is found behind your earlobe, toward the top of your neck and the base of your skull. If your stiff neck comes from sleeping in a bad position, massaging this area is very likely to relieve the pain. Acupuncture at this point has also been proven to help cerebral blood velocity (circulation) (5, 6).
Also known as the central islet or TE3, this stiff neck massage point is found in the valley formed by the tendons of the pinky and ring finger behind the knuckles. Like the He Gu point, the Zhong Zu point can help relieve both headaches and neck pain caused by tension and stress.
How To Massage Stiff Neck And Shoulder?
If both your neck and shoulders are aching, massaging the Jian Jing point is a good way to help quickly relieve this pain. Assistant stretch therapy is also a good way to ease the tension in very tight shoulders and neck. Assisted stretch therapy can be done either individually or with a partner.
Side flexion is a great example of this:
- Begin by slowly tilting your left ear down to your left shoulder.
- Lift the left hand and place it on your right ear to gently assist in this motion.
- Once you feel a stretch in the muscles on the right side of your neck, stop and hold this position for about 10 seconds.
- After 10 seconds, straighten the neck and relax for about 5 seconds before repeating this stretch on the same side.
- Repeat the stretch this stretch 5 times on this side before switching to the other side and repeating the stretch 5 times
Exercise/Stiff Neck Massage: Which Is Better?
For a stiff and painful neck, both exercising and massaging can help relieve pain – but they should be done at different points. Trying to exercise with a very painful neck by stretching it can make the pain worse. Instead, massage it to release some of the tension of knots and then try stretching it.
Other Than Massages, How Else Can I Relieve Neck Pain?
Aside from stiff neck massages, other ways to temporarily reduce this pain include
- Using an ice pack – This helps numb the area and will also relieve inflammation and any swelling.
- Use heat – If you have access to a heat pack use that as the heat helps to relax tense muscles. If you do not have access to heating packs, microwave some rice in a cloth bag and place it on the aching area.
- Fix your sleeping posture – This includes finding a better mattress and pillow that works with your preferred sleeping position.
- Reduce stress – You can seek therapy, take walks in nature, participate in hobbies, and if possible, avoid people and situations that increase your stress levels.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to do a stiff neck massage on yourself is a fantastic and cost effective way to get rid of a painful tense neck in the comfort of your home. If the massage doesn’t work and the pain persists for days even after massaging and stretching, please seek professional help or better yet speak to a doctor to find any underlying cause.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Acupuncture Point “Hegu” (LI4) Is Close to the Vascular Branch from the Superficial Branch of the Radial Nerve (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Cervical Spondylosis (2022, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Deep tissue massage: What are we talking about? (2018, sciencedirect.com)
- Deep Tissue Massage and Soft Tissue Release in the Management of Chronic Ankle Injury (2020, sportmont.ucg.ac.me)
- Effects of acupuncture at fengchi point (GB 20) on cerebral blood flow (1998, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Effects of GV20 acupuncture on cerebral blood flow velocity of middle cerebral artery and anterior cerebral artery territories, and CO2 reactivity during hypocapnia in normal subjects (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Massage Therapy for Chronic Stiff Neck (2018, spine-health.com)
- Meningitis (2022, nhs.uk)
- Neck pain: global epidemiology, trends and risk factors (2022, bmcmusculoskeletdisord.biomedcentral.com)
- Psychosocial Variables and Sleep Associated With Neck Pain in Adolescents: A Systematic Review (2019, tandfonline.com)
- The effectiveness of acupressure on relieving pain: a systematic review (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The effect of GB21 acupressure on pain intensity in the first stage of labor in primiparous women: A randomized controlled trial (2021, sciencedirect.com)
- The Efficacy of Acupressure for Symptom Management: A Systematic Review (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)