I’m a Cyclist and Physical Therapist, and This is What I Do For That Cycling Pain in the Neck

Perform this five-minute neck rehab routine and follow these bike position tips to tackle stubborn neck pain while cycling.

cyclist with neck pain holding head down
Photo: TLBVelo photography at TLBVelo.com

Neck pain is a shared cycling complaint, and for a good reason. Cyclists must maintain prolonged periods with their spine flexed, placing excessive demand on the musculoskeletal structures of the neck when looking up at the road or screen.

It may be a warning sign that your bike positioning is slightly off. A proper and reliable bike fit is always a solid idea.  

COVID-19-related lifestyle changes and the poor postural habits associated with them have caused many of us to complain of neck, shoulder, and upper back pain after slumping over our computers for hours.  

For a deeper dive into the causes, treatment, and prevention of cycling-related upper-body pain, check out The ZOM virtual case study entitled “Arm & Hand Pain While Cycling.”

Fostering good posture and body mechanics habits off the bike is essential to remaining comfortable and performing well while on it. However, there are times when prevention isn’t enough, and we can’t shake that pain in the neck. That’s when taking steps to optimize your bike position and performing a routine neck stretching, and core strengthening routine will be necessary.

Causes of Neck Pain While Cycling

Let’s face it, riding a bike for extended periods isn’t great for our spine. Sitting on the saddle with our trunk bent and our heads craned upwards places tremendous stress on our neck and upper back muscles.

 

The longer we ride in that position, the more compression occurs to the spinal joints. The muscles surrounding the spine work hard to counteract the stress and hold our heads up. They get fatigued and irritated, causing soreness and spasm. Pushing our neck muscles to contract for a long time decreases blood flow, and trigger points emerge.

 

Poor posture and position are significant causes of neck pain while cycling. Over time your overworked neck muscles will become weak, and your upper back muscles, like the upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and rhomboids, will get overstretched and unstable. Poor posture often leads to core instability and trunk weakness. 

 

Finding the correct postural bike position is the first step toward eliminating neck pain while cycling. A neutral spinal position causes less spine stress, decreases muscle load, and makes riding efficient, natural, and effortless for your neck.

 

Here are a few basic bike fitting recommendations, although nothing beats the expert guidance of a certified bike fit specialist.

cyclist riding outdoor with head down has neck pain
Photo: TLBVelo photography @TLBVelo.com

Common Bike Fit Suggestions to Address Neck Pain While Cycling

All of the tools in the toolbox will only help if you start with the proper size frame. Be sure you make the right choice. Your salesperson should be able to help with that.

Adjust Handlebar Reach

Handlebar reach is the distance between your bike’s bottom bracket axle and the center of the handlebar clamp. More simply, a rider’s reach is the distance from the center of your saddle to the tip of the shift lever.

 

It determines how far a rider must lean forward when riding. You’ll be overreaching and overextended if your reach is too long. It places excessive stress and strain on the neck and its surrounding structures.

 

You can shorten handlebar reach in several ways.

  1. Shorten the stem-The first thing you should try.
  2. Narrow the handlebars– Your shoulders will be more relaxed if the outside of your bars is even with your shoulders.
  3. Ensure your saddle is in a neutral position-If the nose of your saddle is pointed upward, your pelvis will tilt and cause you to overreach.
  4. Saddle height-If your saddle is too high, it causes you to overreach.
  5. Choose bars with shorter reach-Different handlebars have varying dimensions and are a place to look when adjusting reach.
  6. Hood position-Place your brake levers high on the bars with a slight upward tilt to decrease reach.

Adjust Handlebar Height

If you want to be like the pros and slam your stem, think again if you get neck pain while cycling. Raising your handlebars will put your neck in a more neutral position and decrease the strain when looking forward at the road. Here are a few ways.

  1. Add spacers between your stem and fork, or move them from above the stem to below.
  2. If you’ve already placed the spacers below your stem, you can try flipping or inverting your stem to create a positive rise.
  3. You can purchase a new fork or try a steerer tube extender if the above tips don’t give you the needed length.
  4. If all else fails, your bike likely isn’t the proper size or geometry.

A Few More Neck Pain While Cycling Tips

  • Relax your shoulders by dropping them down away from your ears.
  • Keep a slight bend in your elbows, so your arms and not your neck absorb the road bumps.
  • Move your hands on the bars periodically to give them a chance to rest.
  • Stretch your neck and move your head when it’s safe to do during your ride or when stopped to take a break.
  • Use a helmet and glasses that fit well and don’t cause you to extend your neck to avoid discomfort or obstructed vision.
Neck Pain while cycling indoor setup

Virtual Cycling Pro Tip: Position your monitor or computer screen below the horizontal line of sight. It will decrease neck and upper back extension and keep your spine neutral. Your neck muscles will thank you for it. 

Neck Pain While Cycling Exercise Program

Here are a few tips which will go a long way in keeping you pain-free on and off the bike when posture and positioning aren’t enough.

Neck pain while cycling chin tuck exercise

Chin Tuck (Cervical Retraction)

Slowly draw your head back so that your ears line up with your shoulders.

Upper Trapezius Stretch

While sitting in a chair, hold the seat with one hand and place your other hand on your head to assist in bending your head to the side as shown.

 

Bend your head towards the opposite side of the hand that is holding the chair. You should feel a stretch to the side of your neck.

Neck pain while cycling upper trapezius stretch
Neck pain while cycling elevator scapulae stretch

Levator Scapulae Stretch

Grab the chair seat and then tilt your head to the other side, while rotating your head to the side and downward as if looking at your opposite pocket. Look towards the pocket opposite the target side and use your other hand to apply a gentle pulling pressure in that direction.

Rhomboid and Mid-Trap Stretch

Interlace your fingers and then draw your hands forwards until a stretch is felt along your upper back. Vary the angle of your arms downward to stretch different muscle fibers along your back.

Neck pain while cycling rhomboid stretch
Neck pain while cycling doorway stretch

Doorway Stretch

While standing in a doorway, place your arms up on the door jam and place one foot forward through the doorway as shown. Next, bend the front knee until a stretch is felt along the front of your chest and shoulders.

 

Your upper arms should be horizontal to the ground and your forearms should lie up along the door frame. Your legs control how much you stretch by bending or straightening your knee through the doorway.

Elastic Band Bilateral Shoulder Extension

While holding an elastic band with both arms in front of you with your elbows straight, pull the band downwards and back towards your side. Feel your shoulder blades coming together as you squeeze your shoulders backward.

Neck pain while cycling bilateral shoulder extension band exercise
Neck pain while cycling bilateral shoulder external rotation exercise

Elastic Band Bilateral Shoulder External Rotation

Begin by holding an elastic band with your palms directed upwards and your elbows bent to 90 degrees by your side. Next, move your hands away from each other and keep your elbows close to your side. Your shoulder blades should move closer together as your shoulders rotate externally (forearms move from pointed forward to pointed towards the side).

Elastic Band Rows

Holding the elastic band with both hands and draw back the band as you bend your elbows. Keep your elbows near the side of your body.  Feel your shoulder blades coming together as you squeeze your shoulders backward.

 

For several cycling trunk strengthening programs, check out our Core Strengthening page.

neck pain while cycling row exercise

Signs of Something More Serious When You Have Neck Pain While Cycling

If you experience any of the following symptoms, contact your healthcare professional, as they may signal something more severe than a neck strain or spasm.

 

  • Pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness that radiates down into the shoulder, arm, or hand.
  • Headache or dizziness.
  • Visual problems or sensitivity to bright lights.
  • Neck instability.
  • Difficulty with finger dexterity or lack of coordination.
  • Gait disturbances such as feeling off balance.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

 

Cycling doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck anymore. 

What do you find helps you?

What tricks do you use for your pain in the neck? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.


For more ways to actively treat your cycling-related aches and pains, check out the Injury Prevention & Treatment page of The ZOM!

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