Updated on July 23, 2020

Note: Severe pain in the neck, back, or jaw that appears without injury or other visible reason should be treated as a medical emergency. Go to an emergency room as soon as possible. This can be a sign of a heart attack. Pain radiating from the shoulder down the arm is a particular concern but any suspicious back, neck, or shoulder pain should be examined immediately. Better safe than sorry!

The nerves of the shoulder and neck are closely linked. Shoulder pain may be caused by a neck problem and vice versa. A visit to your doctor should address the possibility of injury to the rotator cuff and potential damage to the discs between your neck vertebrae.

If these potentially serious medical conditions are eliminated, it’s likely that you’re dealing with either a joint injury or muscle strain from injury or repetitive stress. 

Shoulder and neck pain from repetitive stress can come from spending too much time over a keyboard or any other activity that places your neck and shoulders in a fixed position for an extended time. Even sleeping in an awkward position can cause serious discomfort in the neck and shoulder area.

In the short term, most muscle pain can be alleviated by rest, avoiding the activity that provokes the pain, applying cold packs, and anti-inflammatory medications. In the longer term, you’ll want to identify and address the causes of the pain. If you’re facing repetitive stress, look at the activity causing the stress, and look for ways to adjust your position or break up continuous periods of stress. 

You can also work to stretch and strengthen the muscles in the area, which will help protect against joint injuries and leave muscles more resilient. 

Yoga and most other stretching systems will have many exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility in the neck and shoulder area. Most strength training programs will also include exercises designed to build muscle strength in the neck and shoulders. 

Both stretching and strength training should start gently and work up to more challenging exercises. Don’t overdo it when you’re first starting out, or you run the risk of injuring yourself even more rather than healing the initial injury.

Here’s one simple stretching exercise that can help with neck pain due to excessive time in a single position: 

Place the chin against your upper chest for ten seconds. Then place your chin against your left shoulder for ten seconds, and then the right shoulder for ten seconds. 

Next, place your left ear as close as you can to your left shoulder for ten seconds, and do the same with the right ear to the right shoulder. 

Finish by tipping the head back as far as it will go for ten seconds. Move slowly from one position to the next and stop if you feel pain. 

If stretching and light exercise fail to alleviate pain or if pain increases, seek medical treatment.

Neck and shoulder pain that occurs while hiking is often the result of a poorly loaded or fitted backpack. Make sure heavy items are loaded close to the body, along the inner side of the pack, and be sure your pack is properly adjusted to transfer the weight to your hips, rather than your shoulders. 

Some hikers also experience neck discomfort if they are constantly looking down at the trail scanning for obstacles. To prevent a stiff neck while hiking, make a conscious effort to look up and around regularly when you reach a flat and clear part of the trail. Also stretch periodically and try to look ahead and anticipate obstacles rather than looking at your feet the whole time.

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