Cervical retraction may comprise part of your home exercise program if you have spinal arthritis, or you need to strengthen your neck muscles. It is also good for stretching or loosening the muscles at the back of your neck.
Personally, I think cervical retraction feels great. When I focus on my technique, I often feel my entire spine in alignment - from top of my head to bottom of my pelvis, where the sitting bones are. And I can feel my back muscles relax all up and down my spine.
As always, if you have a neck condition, you have pain or other symptoms going down your arm (radiculopathy) or you're just unsure of what you should do, or how you should do it, please ask your doctor or physical therapist for direction before trying the following.
To start, review the neck exercise for forward head posture. This is preparatory work that will likely give you an experience of exactly what to do - without loading your joints while you are learning the movement. Although this part of the exercise won’t feel like much of a workout, it will probably help you feel the correct action of the head as it moves on your neck.
Once you are successful at gently but accurately moving your head in alignment with your neck, it will be time to work with cervical retraction as a real exercise.
Most of the time, cervical retraction is done while sitting nice and tall on your chair. You can also stand, but standing is more complicated for the body to coordinate than sitting. Because doing the cervical retraction movement well takes focus, it may behoove you to avoid that complication by doing the exercise from a sitting position.
A Quick Note About Doing Cervical Retraction From The Prone Position
With that said, it's also possible to perform the cervical retraction from the prone (stomach lying) position. Place your forehead on the surface you are lying on, with your arms straight down by your sides. (Don't lock your elbows - keep them relaxed.) When you bring your head back, keep the movement small. Lift just your forehead up, keeping your chin slightly tucked. Don't kink at the neck. Your head should be as an extension of your spine. Review the instructions below to get more specific about the direction into which you should move your head.
Instructions for Cervical Retraction While Sitting (or Standing)
Assume your chosen start position, whether it is sitting standing or lying prone. Gently tuck your chin down toward your neck. Don't jam your chin in, though. We are after alignment here, not a maximal position.
Keeping your chin where it is, press your head back. Remember, this is a diagonal direction; it's as though you are moving your head both backwards and up toward the ceiling. Feel the stretch at the back of your neck. Relax, and repeat.
You might try doing the cervical retraction about 20 to 30 times each day, either all at once or broken up into 5-8 reps 4 to 5 times during the day.
Technique Points For Pain Management
Of course, it's important to be mindful of any pain resulting from cervical retraction. But if you have neck arthritis (cervical spondylosis), try to go all the way to the end and move through the pain. This is what helps improve and manage symptoms of arthritis.
Other Neck Exercises
Another good neck strengthening exercise is the isometric neck press. With this strengthener, you'll move your head forward, backward and to each side while providing resistance with your hand. Click the link for more detailed instructions for the isometric neck press.
Don’t forget to include range of motion exercises in your neck program. This develops flexibility and is especially important to do if you have arthritis in the area.
Kisner, C., & Colby, L.A. (2002). Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques.Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
Telephone Interview. Rajter, Hagit, PT, MSPT, Schroth Scoliosis Therapist, Cert. McKenzie Therapist, Advanced Clinician Physical Therapist, Joint Mobility Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City. September 2011.