Neck tension is, well, a pain in the neck—literally and figuratively. It really puts a damper on your day and can lead to headaches. (Or worse, migraines.) Some of the causes of neck tension include looking down at your phone 24/7, stress, carrying heavy bags, working out, and even eating certain foods that cause inflammation in your body, says Michelle Ebbin, touch therapy expert and spokesperson for on-demand massage service Soothe.
Of course, most of us have zero time to be dealing with pesky neck aches on the daily—hello, we’ve got important things to do! (Although, as mentioned before, a stressful schedule is part of the problem…) So for those times when acupuncture or a chiropractic visit just won’t fit on the calendar, I asked Ebbin how to relieve neck tension ASAP—and help prevent it from coming back.
Keep reading for an expert’s tips on soothing a sore neck.
How to relieve neck tension, once and for all
1. Stretch it out
Slow neck rolls are your best friend when you have neck tension, Ebbin says. To do them, drop your head forward and make slow circles with your head in one direction. Whenever you feel tightness, hold it there for a few seconds. Then, continue making circles in the opposite direction.
2. Give yourself a massage
Although splurging on a massage is always a good idea, if your busy schedule or budget doesn’t allow it, you can totally go the DIY route. All you need is a tennis ball.
Here’s how Ebbin suggests you do it: Lay down on a hard floor (not carpet) with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Place the tennis ball under your neck right where you feel the tension. Let the weight of your neck and head fall onto the ball, then gently rock your body back and forth so the ball massages your neck. Doing this for a few minutes will stimulate circulation and blood flow to that area, helping to release the tension.
3. Use a pencil to knead the area
Speaking of massages, there are tons of fancy neck massaging gadgets on the market these days, but Ebbin actually doesn’t recommend them. “Save your money,” she says. “Get a pencil.” Use the eraser to apply pressure to the exact tension point and make small circles to massage it out. “You can go just as deep and get as effective of a massage as with any of those tools that are out there,” she says.
4. TRY reflexology ON YOUR HANDS AND FEET
Reflexology is another thing Ebbin suggests when she’s asked how to relieve neck tension. The cool thing about this Traditional Chinese Medicine modality is that you can do it without even touching the area. “Every part of your body is connected through nerves to your hands, feet, and ears,” Ebbin says.
If have a neckache at work, you can take steps to relieve the tension inconspicuously while sitting at your desk. Just use the thumb from one hand to apply pressure and rub small circles on the base of your other thumb, which is the reflexology area connected to the neck. Do it for 15 seconds on each hand. This is also said to help increase circulation in your neck region and release any stuck energy, Ebbin says.
If you’re not at work and can kick off your shoes and relax a bit, you can also dig into the reflexology point on your feet or get someone else to do it for you. (Hey, you’re in pain!) Just like on your hand, apply pressure and make small circles on the base of your big toes for 15 seconds each.
5. Stimulate the “gates of consciousness” acupressure points
In addition to stimulating the reflexology points on your hands and feet, Ebbin also suggests giving acupressure points a try. She recommends the “gates of consciousness” acupressure points in particular. These are located at the base of your skull, in the hollows on both sides of your neck between the two vertical neck muscles. Use your thumbs to strongly press upwards on both of these points simultaneously for 10 seconds. Then release and repeat. This, too, is believed to get blood flowing back to your head and neck.
6. Destress with essential oils
Essential oils aren’t just good for cleaning your yoga mat. Like a stretchy yin session, they can also help soothe tense muscles. “I recommend using a few drops of peppermint essential oil—diluted in a base of unscented almond oil or other any natural oil—and massaging this into the area of your neck that hurts,” Ebbin says. “Peppermint oil [may] help to relieve pain, as well as calm any muscle spasms.” Bonus points if you also take a few whiffs of lavender or rosemary oil, said to help calm your mind—or just go wild and make a bath experience out of it. (Crystals optional.)
Another way stress can manifest in your body? Acne. To keep it at bay, consult your Myers-Briggs type to know when your stress is reaching unhealthy levels.
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