Reduce Neck Strain


Does your neck often feel tight and sore? Perhaps your way of breathing is partly to blame. Look at your neck in the mirror while you breathe. Try not to change how you are breathing – you are simply observing. Do you notice your neck muscles tighten with each breath?

Now place your hand gently around the front of your neck, thumb on one side, fingers on the other, and once again tune into your breathing. Do you feel any muscles hardening and then softening as you inhale and exhale?

If you saw your neck muscles working, or you felt them turning on and off while you were breathing, it is not surprising that your neck feels tight and sore. The neck muscles are not meant to pull up your ribcage with each breath – they are small and stringy things, and it is hard work for them to counteract the pull of the larger muscles that connect the ribs to the pelvis.

Your breathing muscle is your diaphragm, and learning to use this muscle will be key to reducing the strain in your neck.

Wrap a towel or strap around your lower ribcage, cross it in the front and hang onto the ends. Now as you breathe, try and feel your lower ribs expanding all around against the towel or strap. Keep your neck quiet.

Don’t breathe in more air than usual – simply try and place the air low in your ribs. You can also practice by lying on your back and placing your hand on your neck to monitor for unwanted muscle contraction.

As you breathe, you should feel your ribs imprinting more into the floor, and you should feel nothing in the neck. Be consistent in your practice, and your breathing pattern will change.

Chek, Paul, CHEK Level 3 Manual – The Upper Quarter, Paul Chek Seminars, CHEK Institute, 1992, 1997, 2000

Kisner, Carolyn and Colby, Lynn,Therapeutic Exercise; Foundations and Techniques, Second Edition, F.A. Davis, Philadelphia, 1990.


  1. Sandy McManus said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 6:22 am

    Love your articles. I can’t thank you enough for the all the great, easy to read and understand information!!!

  2. jennifer clarke said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    Hi, Thanks so much for this. I have some questions, comments however on breathing and neck/shoulder tightness. My research and experience is that the neck, shoulder and upper back muscles DO support full inhales. Of course they are not the only muscles that work when we breathe, and yes, the diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle. But the muscles that are attached to the ribcage gently pull open the ribcage when we inhale creating space for the lungs to fulfill themselves. the scalenes lift the ribs, the pec minor widens the ribs, the serratus anterior widens the upper rib cage, even the SCM lifts and widens the upper rib cage by attaching to the sternum. these are just some of the secondary muscles that work to create space for the lungs to expand inside the cavity of the ribs when we breath. i DO agree that when we inhale if we see a tightness in the neck then we can work to open and breathe differently. but a lifting and widening occurs because of these secondary breathing muscles. if these muscles are not engaged through bodywork, yoga or whatever, they become inhibited and lose their neuro-muscular functioning – breathing in inhibited, as it mobility in the shoulders and neck. …anyways, these are my thoughts and experience. i’m totally open to dialogue and different experiences and perspectives.

  3. Vreni said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    Hey Jennifer, I don’t disagree with anything you say here. All those muscles play important roles in full inhales, as you suggest. The question is how active are the scalenes, SCM, levator scapulae in quiet breathing – while sitting quietly, lying down, or maybe even strolling slowly. I’m not thinking that in that case they should be very active. However the more air that is needed, the more muscles get involved in creating space within the ribcage for the lungs to expand. Once someone is slightly winded, all the muscles you mention will definitely be involved and they should be involved.

    I think that if the scalenes are actively pulling up the ribcage while the person is lying down, that there is a motor engram that needs to be addressed. Do you disagree? It’s always interesting to understand where other practitioners are coming from! I love the dialogue as well. And maybe you can convince me that I’m on the wrong path!

  4. Fix Car Scratches said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 5:29 am


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