Aging can literally be a pain in the neck. That’s because degeneration of the cervical vertebrae occurs in nearly everyone as they age, likely the result of decades spent holding up our 8- to 10-pound heads – the equivalent of a bowling ball propped on our tiny neck bones.

Of the large number people with degenerating vertebrae, some will develop cervical arthritis, which occurs when joints between the cervical vertebrae become damaged either by injury or the erosion associated with osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The symptoms of neck arthritis include chronic pain, muscle weakness, numbness, stiffness, headaches and loss of balance.

Fortunately, researchers have determined that simple exercises can provide plenty of relief regardless of the cause of the pain. A randomized, controlled trial at Punkaharju Rehabilitation Center in Finland studied the effectiveness of strength training in the neck, compared with stretching or no exercise. Participating in the study were 180 women, aged 25 to 53, who did office work and had chronic neck pain.

Results showed that strength-training exercises worked best to relieve neck pain, with up to three-quarters of the women reporting “considerable or complete” pain relief. One year after the study, the women’s improved neck strength remained, and their ability to look up, down and sideways was greatly improved – 10 times better than in the control group.

“The emphasis previously has been on stretching exercises, but the study showed their effectiveness alone is poor for chronic neck pain. Stretching should be combined with strengthening neck and shoulder muscle exercises,” says lead researcher Jari Ylinen.

The strength-training group used an elastic resistance band (you can order one from www.thera-band.com) for one set of exercises. Try the strengthening exercise at home – but only after getting your doctor’s permission.

  • Sit up straight in a chair and put the back of your head in the loop of resistance band, the ends of which should be securely tied to a nearby stationary object that is level with your head.
  • Make sure your neck and back stay straight as you slightly lean forward from your hips. Your head will move forward about one foot.
  • Slowly return to the starting position, keeping shoulders back as you keep your neck straight.
  • Repeat 15 times.