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Pregnancy is a time of great change for your body. Many women experience different types of pain and discomfort during their nine months of pregnancy. One type of pain that some pregnant women experience- that they don’t always expect- is neck pain.
In this blog post, we will discuss the causes of neck pain during pregnancy, and what you can do to alleviate the pain. As a mom and Doctor of Physical Therapy that’s been there, I hope these tips about neck pain pregnancy help you find the relief you are looking for!
What Causes Neck Pain During Pregnancy?
There are a few different reasons why you may experience neck pain during your pregnancy. Let’s review some causes of neck pain.
- Weight gain. While we tend to think of our bellies as the primary place where weight is gained, typically the body works on storing a few extra pounds in preparation for breastfeeding. Plus, your boobs might be feeling a bit heavy as they prepare as well. All that extra poundage can put some serious strain on your neck and shoulders.
- Postural changes. As your baby grows, your center of gravity changes. This can cause you to adjust the way you stand and sit, typically with more exaggerated curves of the spine, which may lead to neck or shoulder pain.
- Hormones. The pregnancy hormone relaxin is responsible for loosening your ligaments and joints in preparation for childbirth. However, this same hormone can also lead to changes in joint mobility in the spine that can affect stability and mechanics and lead to a variety of different types of pain during pregnancy (even in early pregnancy).
- Fatigue. It’s no secret that pregnancy can be exhausting! All that extra weight you’re carrying around, plus the changes in your hormones and sleep patterns, can lead to fatigue. This can zap your energy levels and make it more difficult to maintain good posture throughout the day.
- Changes in activity level. As your pregnancy progresses, you may find it more and more difficult to participate in activities that you used to enjoy. This can lead to a decrease in activity level, which can cause stiffness.
- Increased nerve sensitivity. Some women experience increased nerve sensitivity during pregnancy due to hormones and increased fluid retention, which can lead to neck pain with certain movements or positions (see types of pain below).
- Mental stress. Let’s face it- pregnancy can be a stressful time! Whether it’s worrying about the changes happening to your body, lack of sleep, or anxiety about the upcoming birth, stress can take a toll on your body and lead to neck pain.
Types of Neck Pain in Pregnancy (Symptoms)
There are a few different types of neck pain that you may experience during your pregnancy. Each type elicits slightly different symptoms depending on the tissues involved. And of course, more than one can occur at once.
- Dull achy neck and shoulder pain– from a muscle strain or joint irritation
- Sharp shooting neck or shoulder pain– typically from nerve irritation, but can also be from blood flow changes
- Pain with certain movements– postural changes that lead to a stiff neck and sore with certain positions
- Generalized stiffness– from changes in activity level, sleeping funny, or fatigue
- Muscle knots or spasms- muscle knots are also called trigger points, these can form in the upper back and shoulder muscles from muscle overuse, poor posture, or spending too long in an awkward position
- Headaches– can be caused by any of the reasons above
Who Can Help?
If you are experiencing neck pain during your pregnancy, or any kind of pain, the best thing to do is talk to your healthcare provider. He or she can help determine if there are any red flags that warrant further investigation.
For personalized recommendations, it’s time to talk to a movement expert- a physical therapist. Many women think that they just need to “suffer through” pregnancy pain when the truth is that there is often a lot that can be prescribed to help you feel your best- particularly pregnancy-safe exercise and education on what to expect.
And the best part is- you don’t need a referral to get started with a physical therapist. In fact, these days you don’t even have to leave your couch if you book a physical therapy appointment virtually!
What to Expect from Prenatal Physical Therapy for Neck Pain
After an in-depth evaluation, your physical therapist will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan. This may include:
- Exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and posture
- Manual therapy techniques, such as myofascial, soft tissue massage, and dry needling to help relieve pain and tension
- Education on how to modify your activities and movements throughout the day
- A home exercise program tailored specifically for you
- Modality recommendations for short-term pain relief (such as heat or ice)
- Posture training with exercise and Kinesiology tape
- Sleep optimization
- And more…
How to Get Neck Pain Relief During Pregnancy
Thankfully, there are a few things that you can do at home to help ease your neck pain in pregnancy.
Pay attention to your posture.
Whether you spend most of your day sitting at a computer or on your feet, it’s important to support your spine as you move and adjust.
Set up your desk ergonomically, with your computer screen at eye level, to avoid hunching. Make sure your chair has adequate lumbar support and can be adjusted to keep your feet flat on the ground.
If you’re standing, keep your weight evenly distributed on both feet and avoid crossing your legs.
Take breaks often to move around and change positions.
Every 20-30 minutes, get up out of your seat and do a few gentle stretches or take a quick walk around the office or your home.
Get a prenatal massage.
Visit a professional or ask your partner for a rub down- just make sure they are gentle! Alternatively, you can also grab a theracane or other massage tool to rub those sore neck muscles on your own.
Try pain relieving modalities.
This can include everything from heat or ice to electrical stimulation for short-term pain relief. Consult with your physical therapist to see if any of these are appropriate for you during pregnancy.
One of the best things you can do for your body is to keep it moving. Even with low energy levels and nausea making you feel uninspired, gentle movement is the key to feeling your best throughout pregnancy for most women.
On the other hand, make sure you’re not overdoing it and taking plenty of time to rest your hard-working body.
Exercises to Try for Neck Pain
If you’re looking for some specific exercises to target your neck pain during pregnancy, here are a few of our favorites:
Sit or stand tall with your shoulders down and relaxed. Gently roll your head in a circular motion, making sure not to strain. Do this slowly at first and gradually increase the speed and range of motion as it feels comfortable.
Start by standing or sitting with good posture. Slowly raise your shoulders up towards your ears, hold for a second, and then release them back down.
Sit or stand with good posture and slowly tuck your chin down towards your chest. You should feel a gentle stretch in the back of your neck. Hold for a few seconds and then release back to starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Upper Trapezius Stretch
Start by sitting or standing tall with good posture. Use one hand to grab the opposite ear and gently pull it towards your shoulder. You should feel a gentle stretch across the upper back and side of the neck. Hold for a few seconds and then release. Repeat on the other side.
Doorway chest stretch
Start by standing in a doorway with your arms at 90 degrees, elbows bent and hands on either side of the door frame. Lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and hold for 30 seconds. Release and repeat as needed.
Shoulder blade squeezes
Start by sitting or standing with good posture. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for a few seconds. Focus between your shoulder blades and do not let your neck tense up. Release and repeat as needed.
Want more stretches for full body flexibility? Try prenatal yoga.
My Two Personal Favorite Pain-Reliving Tools
Outside of daily gentle exercise, there were two tools that I used every night that were life savers- especially after a busy day at work.
- Portable massage chair: This was a game changer for me during pregnancy. I would come home from work, plop down in my massage chair, and let the built-in heat and vibration work its magic on my tired body. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was the only thing that helped me get through some tough nights early on in my pregnancy.
- Pregnancy pillow: I don’t know how I would have gotten through pregnancy without my C-shaped pillow, especially the third trimester. I slept with it every single night and it supported my belly, back, and neck perfectly. If you don’t have one yet, I would highly recommend investing in one!
Boost Your Comfort During Pregnancy
Pregnancy can be downright uncomfortable, but don’t write all of your pain off just yet. There’s a lot you can do to make those 9 months less painful and more enjoyable. Hopefully, you now have a good idea of where to start! Good luck mama!
Dealing with other pregnancy pain? See our other guides!
- How to treat SI joint pain and back pain during pregnancy
- How to ease tailbone pain during pregnancy
- How to deal with round ligament pain in pregnancy
Are you experiencing neck pain in pregnancy? What has helped you? What hasn’t? What would you add? I’d love to hear!