Mask Wearing Can Be a Pain in the Neck: 5 Movements to Alleviate Muscle Tension

After recently spending 3 days caretaking for my at-risk, elderly family members, I was humbled by the physical toll wearing a mask for 12 consecutive hours each day had on my body. As I was helping with household chores such as dishwashing, laundry and mail opening, about every 30 minutes I became aware of growing tension developing in the back of my neck. This was a result from looking down –– and over my mask –– for extended periods of time.

As a physical therapist specializing in orthopedic care and postural assessments, providing a plan of care around neck pain is a mainstay in my practice. After my own personal experience with neck tension, I immediately began thinking of some simple and effective movements to ameliorate these symptoms associated with mask wearing. The 5 movements shown below address our active range of motion across both our cervical and thoracic spine which can serve as the antidote to forward head posture and resulting neck tension.

1. Retractions

With your gaze straight out in front of you, slightly tuck your chin down and gently move your head back like you’re aligning your ears in line with your shoulders. Repeat 5 times. 

Tuck chin

Retract head

2. Retraction + Rotation

Perform the retraction as above, maintain that position as you gently rotate and look to one side. You may notice you won’t go as far, and that is okay as we are performing a fine tuning movement. Repeat 5 times to each side.

Tuck chin and retract head


Turn head

3. Side Bend + Diagonal Gaze

Side bend by bringing your ear to your shoulder while keeping shoulders relaxed, gently rotate your neck to the same side with your gaze downward. Hold for 3 seconds and switch sides. Repeat 5 times to each side. 

Tilt head

Turn head

4. Seated Cat/Cows

Coordinate your breath to exhale and round your spine, chin to chest. On the inhale extend the spine by squeezing your shoulder blades together, gazing upward if possible. Repeat 5 times, breath to movement.

Exhale stretch


Inhale stretch

5. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, as detailed in a previous blog post, is a staple in the home exercise programs I create for my patients. This breathing technique helps relieve tension in several ways: it transfers breathing from the neck and shoulders to the abdomen, activates your vagus nerve to calm the nervous system including pain receptors, and decreases stress and anxiety.

Please one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm. Take low and slow breaths in through the nose for the count of 3, and exhale for the count of 3. Repeat 5 times.

Deep breaths through the diaphragm

Using a theraband is optional, but the key here is to expand the lower rib cage on the inhalation while keeping the shoulders relaxed. Take low and slow breaths in through the nose for the count of 3, and exhale for the count of 3. Repeat 5 times.

Diaphragmatic breathing with t-band

All 5 exercises listed above are movements that help recruit smaller, segmental muscles that support our spine. When these muscles become activated (meaning your nervous system is primed to use them), this creates active stability. The combination of these movements provides comprehensive activation to your neck musculature, which can improve local blood flow, joint nutrition, flexibility, and balanced posture.

While there should be no pain associated with these 5 movements, you may experience some stiffness. I recommend that you stop a particular movement if you feel numbness and tingling in your shoulder to your arm, or sharp pain. If numbness, tingling or pain continues, consider booking a physical therapy appointment to your check form and rule out complicating factors.

Try these accessible movements whenever you get a break from wearing a mask.

You can learn more about this topic by checking out my previous blog on 4 breathing techniques to relieve tension.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

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Dr. Krystal Sterling

Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Krystal Sterling is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) specializing in orthopedic conditions with an integrative sports medicine approach. She works at Activcore in Atlanta, Georgia, located just 2 miles from Emory University.
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