Neck pain can be caused by many different abnormalities in the physical structures of the shoulders, upper back, and/or neck. For those who play sports or sit hunched over a computer all day, muscle spasms are often to blame. Injuries such as whiplash, and chronic issues such as a pinched nerve or a herniated disc, can also cause neck pain. Fortunately, physical therapy can generally relieve neck pain regardless of the cause. Of course, you should always be evaluated by a physician first to rule out meningitis or other potentially severe illnesses.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a wide-ranging field that focuses on preventing, treating, and managing both temporary and chronic issues with the structural components of the body, including the joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A physical therapist is a licensed professional who is an expert in anatomy and kinesiology, or the science of movement.

First Visit

Physical therapy is a highly individualized program designed to treat the specific issues you face. Therefore, your first visit will consist of an extensive evaluation of your neck pain. Your physical therapist will ask detailed questions about the nature of your pain, past or current injuries and medical conditions, things that worsen or relieve the pain, and how the pain affects your daily life. He or she will then conduct a visual and manual assessment to look for abnormalities in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. You might be asked to move in specific ways to test your range of motion, strength, and reflexes.

Components of Physical Therapy

Based on the results of your assessment, your physical therapist will design a treatment protocol that incorporates a variety of in-office procedures and at-home exercises. You might also receive recommendations for various assistive devices to use short-term or long-term to help ease the pain during the activities of daily living.

Commonly used physical therapy techniques include, but are not limited to:

Pain Relief

At the beginning of therapy, the immediate goal is often to reduce the pain enough that you are able to exercise. Pain relieving treatments may also be used throughout the course of therapy as needed.

  • Deep tissue massage
  • Electrical nerve stimulation
  • Ice and/or heat
  • Ultrasound therapy


Exercise is at the heart of any physical therapy regimen. It is divided into two basic types: stretching and strengthening.

Stretching exercises are used to release muscle tension. Regardless of what is causing the pain, the body’s natural response is to tighten up in an attempt to protect the injured or sore area. As the pain gets worse, the muscles tighten further, which further worsens the pain. This creates a self-replicating cycle that is hard to break.

Stretching is the key to breaking that cycle. Although it may feel even more painful at first, gradually the muscles will lengthen and relax, in turn relieving a great deal of the pain.

Stretching is not enough on its own, however. Strengthening exercises are the key to long-term relief. Strengthening the muscles makes it easier for your neck to withstand the force of gravity and the everyday stressors on your neck. If you have an underlying issue such as a herniated disc, strengthening the muscles will also make it easier for them to support and protect that area.

You will perform many different exercises during physical therapy. You will also learn how to properly complete a variety of exercises at home, between sessions. You might be asked to exercise in front of a mirror to improve your posture.

Cervical Traction

Traction might sound terrifying, but it is actually very simple. A pulley system is used to gently pull on the neck to help with lengthening. It may be done in the office or you might receive instructions on how to properly do it at home. Never attempt cervical traction without proper training, as you could severely injure yourself. When done correctly, however, it is quite safe.

Cervical Collars and Pillows

A cervical collar, or neck brace, is an essential piece of equipment in some situations, such as when possible neck damage from a trauma has not been evaluated, and right after neck surgery. A soft cervical collar, which does not immobilize the neck, may also be valuable for a short time during physical therapy. However, overuse of cervical collars can lead to muscle atrophy, so it is vital to get approval from your physical therapist or physician before buying one.

Cervical pillows encourage good sleeping posture, and may be appropriate for those whose neck pain is worst in the morning. Again, though, it is important to talk to your physical therapist or your doctor, as they can worsen pain in some people.

Physical therapy can dramatically reduce or eliminate most cases of neck pain. You must get a thorough medical evaluation first to rule out or properly treat any illness-related causes. Then your physical therapist will carefully assess the structures of your neck, upper back, and shoulders to develop a personalized treatment plan that is right for you.

Founded by physical therapy innovator Dr. Joseph Simon, the Manhattan Physical Therapy and Pain Center is a leader in pain relief and injury recovery conveniently located in Midtown New York City. We offer several dedicated programs for different conditions, along with the latest innovations in physical therapy for all. If you are ready for the latest treatments for your pain or injury, we invite you to call us today at (212) 213-3480 to learn how we can help.