3 Simple Exercises for a Pinched Nerve In Neck

Simple Steps to Recover and Determine the Root Cause

By Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRCS

3 Simple Exercises for a Pinched Nerve In Neck thumbnail

Pain shooting down your arm or pins and needles in your hand? It may be a pinched nerve in neck. Take these steps to determine the root cause and try these exercises to aid your recovery.

Hi, I’m Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRSC, orthopaedic surgeon and Chief Medical Officer for Precision Movement. Today, we’re going to be reviewing the signs and symptoms that can be associated with a pinched nerve in your neck.

The most important question I always want to know if somebody has pain radiating down their arm, weakness, numbness, or tingling in their arm associated with neck pain is: Why does the pain radiate down the arm?

It’s really important that you go to the doctor and have a checkup because you need to determine whether or not the nerve is being pressed by either:

  • A disc that is degenerated and herniated, or
  • Inflammation around the little joints in your neck that have become swollen and decreased the space for these nerve roots to travel from the neck down to your arm

When a nerve becomes pinched, it doesn’t like it. You’ll feel pain that radiates within the distribution of that nerve out.

There’s a very specific anatomic map for the nerves that emerge from the neck and supply with the arm. We call these the dermatomes and the myotomes.

When you go to the doctor, the doctor is going to look very specifically at the nerve roots.

cervical radiculopathy pinched nerve

For example, the C7 nerve root supplies the motor function to the triceps muscle. Your doctor will test the strength of your triceps, and they’ll test for your triceps reflex.

The sensation for the C7 nerve route goes down the back of the arm and then into the two radial fingers. So, you may have decreased sensation along the pathway of that nerve route if it’s being pressed.

It’s very important that your doctor does a physical examination and a history to localize where the numbness and tingling are coming from. Some people have more generalized numbness, tingling, and weakness.

Your doctor is going to help you differentiate between a pinched nerve or numbness and tingling that may be due to myofascial weaknesses and imbalances around your neck.

neck pain

After your doctor checks you over, they may recommend an x-ray or an MRI to help establish the diagnosis, and this can give us information about where there may be a disc herniation or where there may be arthritis in your neck.

It’s very important that the doctor then correlates what they find on the physical examination to what they find on the x-rays because it’s very common for there to be degenerative changes in our neck, starting around the age of 30 – believe it or not.

Just because you have a degenerative disc on an MRI doesn’t mean that that is causing the problem. To truly diagnose a pinched nerve, you need a correlation of:

  • Your medical history
  • Location of the pain
  • Involvement of a potential nerve route
  • MRI result

Deterioration of Your Neck and Foundation for Movement

Now, if you have had trauma, such as a car accident, diving injury, or a fall, don’t wait to get an appointment with your family doctor. If you’ve got pain radiating down your arm, weakness, or numbness, you need to go to the emergency room to rule out a fracture or a ligament injury in your neck.

Now, for the rest of us who have a pinched nerve that’s due to degenerative arthritis, we need to understand why this part of our neck has deteriorated.

It most commonly has to do with the fact that we don’t have a good foundation for movement.

We don’t have good posture, which is the alignment of the cervical spine. We are not using the deep muscles around our neck to support our spine.

multifidus muscles spine

We have poor movement patterns, which eventually lead to abnormal loads on the discs and the joints, creating wear and tear, eventually leading to discernation, arthritis, and possibly pinched nerves.

The good news is that if you have a pinched nerve because of degenerative changes in your neck, it will go away the vast majority of the time without surgery.

Following some of the exercises that we recommend in this article, you can do a lot yourself to correct your foundation for movement, alleviate the pressure on the nerve, and prevent further deterioration of your neck.

Most of the symptoms of a pinched nerve will start to go away over about four to six weeks. The key is to really understand why your neck has deteriorated. Why has a disc herniated? Why have you pinched your nerve?

Because if we don’t correct that, the degenerative process can continue over your lifetime, and you will affect different segments in your neck the older you get.

So, we want to stop that degenerative process by fixing our foundation for movement, which we can do with exercise.

Once your doctor has cleared you, you can start doing this exercise program.

If you do one of the exercises and start to experience pain down your arm or numbness, then that can tell you that you’re probably out of alignment or you’re not using the correct muscles to do the move. You have an internal feedback loop.

Now you understand why you have a pinched nerve in your neck. Let’s join Coach E to get to the root causes.

Exercises for A Pinched Nerve in Neck

The goal of these exercises is to restore good alignment of the cervical spine, which will relieve the pressure and compression of the nerves in the neck.

You’ll also release some of the muscular tension around the muscles that occurs because when there’s some kind of compression or insult to the tissues, the muscles often contract as a protective and guarding mechanism for your body.

Your brain contracts the muscles so that it limits your movement. As you limit your movement, you do less damage to whatever tissues might be affected. That includes herniated discs and pinched nerves in the neck.

Finally, after restoring alignment and releasing some of that muscular tension, you’ll wake up all the muscles around the neck, which will make your brain see those areas as stable and secure.

What’s important is the order in which you do these three exercises. Also, pay attention to what happens to your symptoms before and after you start. Because if you feel aggravated afterward, it’s either you pushed too far or these exercises aren’t right for you. We’ll have some more resources available for you at the end of this article.

If you want to follow along with the exercises, click here for our YouTube video: 3 SAFE Exercises for a Pinched Nerve in Neck Cervical Radiculopathy.

Exercise 1: Supine Chin Tuck

The first exercise is the Supine Chin Tuck. It’s a staple in our postural programs now because if you have a pinched nerve in your neck, it’s going to settle you down here a little bit. What we’re going to do is lengthen through the cervical spine here and create some space for the nerve to pass through it.

Supine Chin Tuck - exercises for pinched nerve in neck

  1. Lay down on the floor
  2. Relax here, take a few deep breaths
  3. Push down on your chin with your fingers and pull up the back of your head
  4. Settle into this good, aligned posture for a minute or two
  5. With your tongue against the roof of your mouth behind your two front teeth, mouth closed, lift your head off the ground just enough to slide a piece of paper between your head and the floor
  6. Hold for 5 seconds
  7. Release
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 for the remaining reps

Perform 1-2 sets of 4-6 repetitions, holding each rep for 5 seconds.

The other thing to note when you do this exercise is to relax the neck muscles and the shoulder girdle as much as possible so you’re not rounding the shoulders, tensing up the pec minor, or any other muscles that we don’t need to perform this movement.

What we’re trying to do is work some deep cervical flexor muscles in that good, aligned, and lengthened position of the cervical spine so that your body gets used to this position and you’ve got muscular support to maintain this position.

Exercise 2: ASMR – Lateral Neck

Now that we’ve lengthened our cervical spine and started to restore the neck’s good alignment and posture, we’re going to release some of the muscles that tend to tense up, specifically the upper trapezius and levator scapula.

These muscles are located on the side from the base of the skull down into the shoulder blade or scapula.

Just go nice and slow and relaxed. Try to get the full length through the muscles.

ASMR - Lateral Neck - exercises for a pinched nerve in neck

  1. Step back against a wall.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades down and back, bring your chin down, and rotate your head forward
  3. Bring one hand up to the opposite side of your neck
  4. Jam your thumb into the muscle just under your ear and tilt your head away as you slide your thumb down the muscle all the way down to your shoulder blade, exhaling as you go
  5. Repeat in different areas for 1-2 minutes
  6. Switch sides

This can help give you some of the relief you need just to feel better. It’s not going to fix any problems, but decreasing the tension through those muscles can actually decrease some of the compression through the cervical spine to give you a bit of relief.

What’s more important here in this exercise is that it helps decrease muscle tension so you feel better.

 Then I came across the Precision Movement Coach site and I started the Shoulder Control and Hips Control programs, as well I added some exercises from Spine control. I trained my shoulders and hips in parallel. After few months this helped me to improve my overall movement (e.g. before I was not able to retract scapulae with my elbows locked or use my gluteus muscles while walking). – Peter

Exercise 3: 6-Way Neck ISO

This little routine’s third and final exercise is the 6-Way Neck Isometric. We’ll also do this one on the wall to get that good alignment.

You’re teaching your brain to stabilize the neck in good posture by creating space in the intervertebral space for the nerve to pass through unimpeded.

6-Way Neck ISO - exercises for a pinched nerve in neck

  1. Step your body back to the wall, set up your shoulder girdle in good posture, and lengthen the cervical spine—chin in and rotate the head up. Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
  2. Right hand to right side of head – ramp up neck contraction, pushing against your hand
  3. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release
  4. Left hand against left side of head – ramp up neck contraction, pushing against your hand
  5. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release
  6. Place one palm against your forehead – ramp up neck contraction, pushing against your hand
  7. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release
  8. Push the back of your head against the wall – ramp up neck contraction, pushing against your hand
  9. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release
  10. Right hand to right temple – turn your head into your head, ramp up neck contraction
  11. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release
  12. Right hand to left temple – turn your head into your head, ramp up neck contraction
  13. Hold for 10 seconds, breathing, then release

Do 1-2 sets for 2-3 repetitions, holding each rep for about 10 seconds. It’s really important to ramp the contraction up and ramp the contraction down. Think of 10%, then 20%, then 30-40-50%, all the way to as high as you can without irritating yourself.

exercises for a pinched nerve in neck routine summary

Fixing the Pinched Nerve In Your Neck: Summary and Next Steps

Perform this routine 1-3 times per day for at least a week, up to two weeks. Then, you can move on to other exercises and routines.

You might find that when you finish this little routine in the sequence of exercises, you’ll be standing a little bit taller, more effortlessly. And you might find some of those pinched nerve symptoms decreasing because we’ve created that space and then activated the muscles around the area to help you maintain that space.

You might also find these articles interesting to help with immediate pain and some of the root causes:

The Best Exercise for Neck Pain Relief & Tightness – learn one simple exercise for neck pain relief that you can do that’s safe and will quickly bring your neck pain down a couple of notches.

Do THIS Instead of a Levator scapulae Stretch for Neck Pain – a simple levator scapulae stretch won’t do much to ease that pain in your neck. Instead, it’s time to understand the root causes so you can recover effectively.

We’ve also got a program called The Neck Pain Solution that is progressive and gentle and takes you through many different exercises in different phases to get all of those root causes to give you the best chance of long-term relief.

Dr. B says, “Having suffered from neck pain recently, I know how you feel, and I have great confidence that if you do the exercises in this program, your neck pain will improve significantly.

About the Author

Dr. Erin Boynton, MD, FRCS is an orthopedic surgeon who was the team surgeon for the Toronto Blue Jays for 10 years and has worked with other professional teams and athletes from many different sports. She currently serves as the Chief Medical Director of the Rogers Cup WTA Tennis Tournament and is the ITF Canadian Champion in tennis for her age group (we won't say which group that is!).