Increasing neck range of motion is by far the most important strategy for reducing pain, stiffness and disability associated with your arthritis. The good news is that you don't have do intense exercise — often, very simple movement will produce good results.
With that said, though, you should request an exercise program from your doctor or physical therapist, since each person's arthritis is unique. Determining exactly which exercises to do, how many times to do them, and at which level(s) of intensity to work, are decisions all best made by a health professional who has evaluated you. And because such health professionals also understand the arthritic disease process, they can effectively monitor your progress, as well as accurately answer any questions you may have.
Making sure your neck muscles are nice and strong (with exercise) is another important strategy for managing common symptoms, such as pain and stiffness. Strong muscles hold your neck up and keep it in good alignment. Without this, you may be subjecting your neck to unnecessary compression or pressure, which generally makes symptoms worse.
Neck strengthening exercises may also help you better manage the course of the disease.
Hagit Rajter, physical therapist at the Joint Mobility Center at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, recommends targeting muscles at the back of your skull for strengthening. In particular, she says, cervical retraction is a very beneficial movement. Rajter also recommends isometric exercise.
For some people with neck arthritis, mornings and nights present the greatest challenges. How do you deal with morning stiffness? And what do you do to fall asleep when your neck hurts?
First things first: Increasing range of motion is key for managing symptoms of any type of arthritis, including neck arthritis. If you keep that in mind — e.g., you make it your daily mantra, so to speak — you have the start of a good strategy, especially when dealing with morning stiffness.
You can develop your range of motion via stretching, yoga, and, as I mentioned above in the Neck Range of Motion section, by doing very simple, gentle neck movements. It's best to get a home exercise program (from your doctor or physical therapist) that's tailored to your condition. Also, the Arthritis Foundation sponsors exercise classes in local communities all over the country. If you attend one or more of these, you can learn and practice the more commonly-recommended movements in a group setting. Generally speaking, there is music and company at these activities, so who knows — you may even have some fun!
Not only does increased range of motion and neck flexibility help decrease stiffness, it also contributes positively to the interrelated changes in your spine that lead to the stiffness. This, in turn, may also help relieve pain. And flexibility in general helps decrease the possibility of injury.
I'll talk more about getting to sleep (and staying there) in the next section, because there's a lot to know, but one thing you can think about here is your positioning. Rule number 1 is: Be comfortable. Here are a few image galleries to get you thinking about ideal sleep positioning:
Along with positioning yourself for comfort, you can improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep by making sure your head is in alignment with your neck. This means no turning your head or rotating your neck, as such a position can lead to compression, pinched nerves and/or symptoms such as radiculopathy. To avoid sleeping with your neck rotated, the best thing is to avoid sleeping on your stomach.
Another way to align your head relative to your spine while sleeping is to use the right kind of pillow (or a rolled up towel — no need to spend a lot of money) to support your neck. When purchasing your pillow, be sure to choose one that's comfortable.
And finally, you might ask your doctor or physical therapist about a soft collar that is designed for bed time. For some people, soft collars worn at night help support the neck, which may also help keep it in alignment.
Many people who've been strongly encouraged to exercise by their doctors get bored with a generic routine, especially once the reality of doing the same exact movements every single day sets in.
If you get the okay from your doctor and/or physical therapist, you might want to switch things up a bit by trying yoga. Yoga helps with alignment, which may in turn help take pressure off your spine. It's also known for developing flexibility, as well as muscle strength. As we've already discussed, flexibility and strength can really help you manage symptoms such as pain and stiffness.
Debbie Turczan, MSPT, Clinical Specialist in Physical Therapy at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, and therapeutic yoga instructor, has some great tips for adapting yoga poses to accommodate spinal arthritis. (Check out the link above to access.)