Exercises for a pinched Nerve in the Neck

exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck

In this blog post – I have listed the best exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck.

Disclaimer: The content presented on this blog post is not medical advice and should not be treated as such. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Use of the content provided on this blog post is at your sole risk. For more information: Medical disclaimer.


What is a pinched nerve?

A pinched nerve is the compression of a nerve (usually by the disc and/or joint) in the neck.

This can lead to pain on the side of neck that refers neurological symptoms (see below) down the arm.

(It is also referred to as a Cervical radiculopathy.)

How do you tell if you have a pinched nerve in your neck?

Before we start the exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck, we need to make sure that you actually have it in the first place!


a) Scans (MRI, CT)

A scan to the cervical spine (neck) can be used to determine if there are structural abnormalities pressing onto a nerve.

Key words to look for in your scan report:

  • Nerve compression
  • Nerve impingement
  • Disc bulge/herniation
  • Foraminal stenosis
  • Canal stenosis
  • Osteophytes
  • Degenerative changes
  • Shortened pedicles
  • Facet joint hypertrophy

(Note: Since these scans are usually performed in the lying down position, the results may not necessarily reflect what is happening to the nerve when you are in the up right position.)

b) Symptoms

Presence of neurological symptoms in the arm such as:

(If you have any of the above symptoms, please advise your doctor!)

c) Pain pattern

Impingement of certain nerves in the neck can refer symptoms in specific patterns.

(Note: There is a degree of variability in the location of the referral patterns from person to person. Use it as a rough guide line!)

d) Spurling’s test

spurlings test for nerve impingement in neck

Instructions:

  • Look upwards.
  • Tilt your head TOWARDS the side of pain.
  • Apply a downward pressure on the side of your head with your hand.
  • (Note: Be gentle when performing this test. You do not want to further irritate your nerve.)

Results:  If this test reproduces the neurological symptoms down the arm, this may indicate that you have a pinched nerve.

e) Upper limb tension test

For best results – I would recommend a healthcare professional to perform this test on you.

test for a pinched nerve in the neck

Instructions:

  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Lift your arm up to shoulder height.
  • Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
  • Rotate your shoulder backwards so that the palm is facing the front.
  • Bend your wrist backwards so that palm is facing upwards.
  • Twist your forearm so that your fingers are facing the side away from you.
  • Start to slowly straighten your elbow until you feel a stretch sensation in the arm.
  • Slightly bend your elbow until the sensation in the arm starts to reduce.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side to see if this movement brings back the same sensation in the arm.
  • Compare with the unaffected side.
    • Be careful when tilting your head towards the side of pain!

Results:  If this test reproduces the neurological symptoms down the arm, this may indicate that the nerve may be irritated.


The best Exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck

Note: These exercises are designed to be gentle and pain-free.

Stop the exercise immediately if the pain worsens or spreads down the arm (Peripheralization).

If there are any doubts, please consult a healthcare professional before commencing the exercises.


1. Address inflammation

If there are significant symptoms present (such as pain, tingling and numbness), it can make it difficult to perform the exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck effectively. Addressing inflammation can help reduce swelling around the nerve.

Note: Consult a doctor before you start any of the following:


a) Anti-inflammatory gel

anti inflammatory medication

Apply an anti-inflammatory gel to the site of the nerve impingement to help manage excessive inflammation.

Recommendation: 2-3/day

b) Non-steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

This oral medication reduces inflammation in the whole body.

Keep in mind – there are different strengths of NSAIDs and is best used if the prescribed medication is appropriate to the severity.

c) Cortisone injection

cortisone injection for pinched nerve

This injection consists of a steroid (cortisone) and an analgesic substance.

The aim of the injection is to:

  • reduce the inflammation
  • reduce the pain by numbing the area

d) Other

There are also pain killers and nerve medication that can help reduce symptoms.

2. Repeated Gentle Neck movements

Keep your neck moving! Explore the available movements of your neck without reproducing any of your symptoms.

This may help address any disc herniation that may be pressing onto a nerve.

Focus on the neck movements that reduce your symptoms.


a) McKenzie chin retraction

chin retraction neck exercises

Instructions:

  • Look slightly downwards.
    • This is to reduce the likelihood of pinching the nerve as you perform this movement.
  • Gently tuck your chin in.
    • Also known as “making a double chin”.
    • Think of this movement like a book sliding back into the shelf.
  • Make sure to keep your jaw and neck muscles relaxed.
  • Repeat 20 times.
  • Note: You can also perform this lying down on your back.

b) Flexion/Extension

gentle exercises for a pinched nerve

Instructions:

  • Slowly (and carefully) alternate between looking up and down.
    • Make sure that your chin does not poke forwards throughout the exercise.
  • Repeat 10 times.

c) Rotation

Instructions:

  • Slowly (and carefully) alternate between looking towards your left and right.
    • Make sure that you do not allow your chin to poke forwards at the end of the movement.
  • Repeat 10 times.

d) Lateral flexion

Instructions:

  • Look slightly downwards.
  • Slowly (and carefully) tilt your neck from side-to-side.
  • You might notice moving your head towards the affected side is more painful.
    • Do not push into pain.
  • Repeat 10 times.

3. Releases

Tight muscles in the neck can eventually lead to compression of a nerve.


a) Back of neck

releases for a pinched nerve in neck

Instructions:

  • Lie down on the floor.
  • Place a massage ball at the back of your neck.
  • Aim to cover the muscles from the base of the skull to the base of the neck.
  • Continue for 1-2 minutes on each side.

b) Front of the neck

scm release

Instructions:

  • Locate the Sternocleidomastoid muscle.
    • (Use Google if you are not sure where this muscle is.)
  • You should be able to feel a prominent band of muscle on the side of the neck.
  • Do not to press in too deep as you may hit other sensitive structures of the neck.
  • Gently massage up and down these muscles using a pinch grip. (see above)
  • Continue for 1-2 minutes.

4. Stretches

The following stretches are aimed at increasing the size of the hole (foramina) that the nerve is getting compressed in.


a) Lateral flexion stretch

Instructions:

  • Tilt your head AWAY from the side of the nerve impingement.
    • (“Bring your ear to the shoulder”)
  • Place your hand on the side of your head and apply a downwards pressure.
  • Whilst holding this position, gently rotate your head towards the side of pain.
  • Aim to feel a prominent stretch on the side of your neck.
  • Avoid any pinching sensation on the side that you are pulling your head towards.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.
  • Note: Do not perform this stretch towards the other side as you may potentially compress the nerve.

b) Back of neck (Lower)

neck stretch back

Instructions:

  • Look down.
  • With your hands at the back of your head, pull your head in a downwards direction.
  • Aim to feel the stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

c) Back of neck (Upper)

stretch exercises for pinched nerve in the neck

Instructions:

  • Place one hand at the front of your chin and the other at the back of your head.
  • Apply a force to the front of your chin as to gently glide the chin backwards.
  • Whilst maintaining this pressure, proceed to pull your head forward/down.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your upper neck.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times.

5. Traction

These exercises are designed to decompress the neck.

Note: Provide just enough traction to reduce some of the symptoms. If over done, there is a chance that the nerve could be aggravated once the traction force is removed.


a) Manual self-traction

Instructions:

  • Loop and hook a strap under the base of the skull.
  • Hold onto both ends of the strap with your hands.
  • Gently pull the band in an upwards direction.
  • Allow for the chin to nod downwards.
  • Aim to feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Hold for 3-5 seconds
  • Repeat 10 times.

b) Resistance band

(This exercise is more advanced than the previous. Only progress to this stretch if your neck can tolerate it!)

traction exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck

Instructions:

  • Tie a resistance band to a stationary object. (Height: ~3-4 feet)
  • Lie on the floor with your knees bent.
  • Wrap the band under the base of the skull.
  • Whilst still holding the band with your hands, slowly shuffle your body away from the anchor point.
  • Slowly let go and let the band pull on your head.
  • Move as far away until you can feel a stretch at the back of your neck.
  • Completely relax.
  • Hold for 30-60 seconds.
  • Note: Place a small towel between the head and the band to prevent your hair from being pulled.

c) Devices

There are many mechanical traction devices available on the market that you can use to help decompress the joints in the neck.

6. Nerve glides/stretches

A nerve that is pinched in the neck can become “tight” and sensitive. The following exercises will help reclaim the normal mobility of the nerve.

Choose between gentle or firm intensity depending on the irritability of your nerve.

Note: Do not move into any pain or reproduction of your symptoms. The aim is to feel a gentle stretch sensation. If you over stretch, this may irritate the nerve even more.


Gentle

These exercises will glide the nerve.

There should be a minimal amount of sensation in the arm as you perform these exercises.

a) Median nerve (C5-T1)

median nerve glide

Instructions:

Starting position:

  • Keep your head centered.
  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Lift your arm up to shoulder height.
  • Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
  • Rotate your shoulder backwards so that the palm is facing the front.
  • Bend your wrist backwards so that palm is facing upwards.
  • Twist your forearm so that your fingers are facing the side away from you.
  • Start to slowly straighten your elbow and stop when you first start to feel a stretch in the arm.

End position:

  • Moving at the same time: Bend the wrist forwards whilst you tilt your head towards the opposite side.
  • Repeat 20 times.

b) Radial nerve (C5-T1)

Instructions:

Starting position

  • Keep your head centered.
  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Straighten your arm by your side.
  • Twist your arm so that your elbow and palm is facing outwards.
  • Make a fist with your hand.
  • Bend your fist towards the front of your wrist.
  • Slowly raise your arm out to the side and stop when you feel a stretch sensation at the top of your forearm.

End position

  • Moving at the same time: Straighten the wrist whilst you tilt your head towards the opposite side.
  • Repeat 20 times.

c) Ulnar nerve (C8-T1)

ulnar nerve glide

Instructions:

Starting position

  • Keep your head centered.
  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • With your arm by your side, completely bend your elbow with the palm facing forwards.
  • Bend your wrist backwards so that your fingers are pointing upwards/behind you.
  • Slowly lift your elbow to the side and stop when you feel a gentle stretch in the pinky/ring finger and/or inside of the elbow/arm.

End position

  • Moving at the same time: Bend the wrist forwards whilst you tilt your head towards the opposite side.
  • Repeat 20 times.

Firm

The following exercises will stretch the nerve.

It is important that you do NOT over stretch the nerve.

The goal is to feel a gentle pulling sensation.

a) Median nerve

median nerve stretch for pinched nerve

Instructions:

  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Lift your arm up to shoulder height.
  • Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
  • Rotate your shoulder backwards so that the palm is facing the front.
  • Bend your wrist backwards so that palm is facing upwards.
  • Twist your forearm so that your fingers are facing the side away from you.
  • Start to slowly straighten your elbow.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side.
  • Aim to feel a gentle stretch in the thumb/pointer/index finger, front of arm and side of neck.
    • Do not over stretch!
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.

b) Radial nerve

radial nerve stretch for pinched nerve

Instructions:

  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Straighten your arm by your side.
  • Twist your arm so that your elbow and palm is facing outwards.
  • Make a fist with your hand.
  • Bend your wrist towards the side.
  • Raise your arm out to the side.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side.
  • Aim to feel a gentle stretch in the top of your forearm and side of neck.
    • Do not over stretch!
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.

c) Ulnar nerve

ulnar nerve stretch

Instructions:

  • Pull your shoulder downwards.
  • Completely bend your elbow.
  • Bend your wrist backwards.
  • Lift your elbow to the side.
  • Tilt your head to the opposite side.
  • Aim to feel a gentle stretch in the pinky/ring finger, inside of the elbow/arm and/or side of neck.
    • Do not over stretch!
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat 5 times.

7. Address your Posture

In conjunction to performing these exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck, addressing the following postures may also help reduce your symptoms.


a) Forward Head Posture

The Forward Head Posture is where the head pokes forward from the neutral position.

In this position, the neck is kinked backwards which may increase the chance of the nerve being pinched in the back of the neck.

For more information:

b) Dowager’s Hump

dowager's hump

The Dowager’s hump is an enlarged prominence that is formed at the lower region of the neck.

It can increase the chance of pinching nerve for the same reason as stated above.

For more information:

c) Hunchback Posture

If the thoracic spine (upper back) is hunched forwards, it can force the head to poke forwards.

For more information:

d) Rounded Shoulders

rounded shoulders

Having Rounded Shoulders is when the resting shoulder position is in front of the mid line of the torso.

The forward position of the shoulders can pull your head forwards along with it.

For more information:

8. Daily tips

Here are some helpful tips to consider throughout the day to minimize the impingement of the nerve.


a) Cues

Here is a cue to help you hold your head in a better position:

  • “Imagine your head as a balloon that is floating away from your body.”
  • Think: “Long and tall”

b) Head position

If you have a Forward Head Posture, maintain your gaze in a slight downwards angle. (in the short term)

This is to prevent the neck from kinking backwards and squashing the joint/nerves.

c) How should I sleep with a pinched nerve in my neck?

– I recommend sleeping on the back or the side.

  • When you are lying down, it is important to keep your neck in a position that minimizes the chance of the nerve from being pinched.
  • Make sure that your pillow provides an adequate amount of support. The goal is to keep the neck in a neutral position.

– Do not sleep on your stomach.

  • This position forces your head to rotate towards one side.

– Avoid poking your chin forwards.

  • The chin should be in a slightly nodded position.
  • Think about the bottom of the chin going towards the upper chest region.

8. How long does it take to get over a pinched nerve in your neck?

Persist with these exercises for a pinched nerve in the neck for at least 6-12 weeks.

If you still experience significant amount of symptoms after this period, it might be an idea to consult a specialist to see what options are available for you.


The main types of surgeries that address a pinched nerve in the neck are:

  • Foraminotomy
  • Laminectomy
  • Microdisectomy
  • Disc replacement
  • Fusion

These surgical interventions are aimed at increasing the size of the hole (foramina) to which the nerves passes through to reduce impingement.


What to do next

1. Any questions?… (Leave me a comment down below.)

2. Come join me on the Facebook page. Let’s keep in touch!

3. Start doing the exercises!

6 thoughts on “Exercises for a pinched Nerve in the Neck”

    • Hi Kelly,

      A manipulation to the neck with an irritated nerve can potentially relieve some pressure in this area.

      BUT… Just need to make sure the right amount of force, amplitude and direction is applied. (This will come down to the expertise of the chiropractor)

      If the chiropractor is confident that they will not negative affect the nerve, then it is fine to do. Personally – I wouldn’t, but that’s me.

      Hope this answers your question.

      Mark

      Mark

  1. I find myself with a bit of everything. Rounded shoulders, anterior pelvic tilt, rotation in my left hip, hiperextension of my knees and duck feet with limited mobilization in both my foots. Where do you think I should start? For now I’ve been 1 month working on my glutes and abs with a lot of success and mobilization relief I should add. Thanks for the answer.

    Reply
    • Hey Grid,

      You can start any area really.

      Most people tend to start in the area where they have their symptoms and then go from there.

      Mark

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