Cycling Neck & Shoulder Pain

Cycling is a fun and challenging activity, but it can place significant postural demands on your body. A study of non-traumatic injuries in long distance bicyclists published in the "American Journal of Sports Medicine" states that neck and shoulder pain occurred in 20.4 percent of the riders 1. Despite its prevalence, neck and shoulder pain is not inevitable, and it can be avoided by taking precautionary measures and by performing muscle-balancing exercises.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Align Your Spine

According to Dr. Nathan Wei, a rheumatologist and author, the importance of posture must not be underestimated when it comes to understanding the neck and shoulder pain experienced with cycling. The way you hold your spine during vigorous (or even leisurely) physical activity has a tremendous effect on your bones, muscles, tendons, nerves and joints. This is especially true for athletes, such as cyclists, who hold flexed postures for prolonged periods. Riding a bike can be hard on the body, but proper conditioning and postural exercise can help you remain healthy and pain-free while on the bike.

Balancing Act

There are several key muscles involved in cycling that contribute to neck and shoulder pain, including the pectorals, rhomboids, neck extensors and neck flexors--all contributors to a condition known as upper crossed syndrome. According to Jeb Stewart, an exercise scientist, coach and fitness consultant, upper crossed syndrome is common in cyclists and results from a muscular imbalance between the body's front and back sides. Some muscles become tight while others, due to underuse, become weak. The tight muscles in the neck and upper shoulders may impinge on nerves, blood vessels or other structures and cause headaches. The weak muscles may allow the body to assume postures that can cause long-term structural problems and pain.

Listen to Your Body

According to Chad Asplund, a sports medicine physician and avid cyclist, some of the most common symptoms associated with cycling-induced neck and shoulder pain are muscular strain, headaches, upper back and neck discomfort, and finger tingling. Pete Egoscue, an anatomical physiologist and author of "Pain Free," believes such symptoms are warning signs from the body that something is amiss. He believes pain and other symptoms are a call to action, a demand by the body that we pay attention to how we’re moving and a request to inject muscular balance into an unbalanced system.

Work Out the Kinks

There are several exercises you can perform before and after a bike ride to help decrease shoulder and neck discomfort. Ron Fritzke, a California chiropractor, cyclist and former marathon runner, recommends cyclists perform exercises such as reverse shoulder shrugs, elbow presses and neck range of motion exercises.

Perform reverse shoulder shrugs by lifting both of your shoulders toward your ears and then rolling your shoulders backward and down as your shoulder blades squeeze together. This exercise helps extend the upper spine and open up the chest. Perform elbow presses by bending your elbows to 90 degrees, lifting them to shoulder height and pulling them back as far as you can. Elbow presses help stretch tight muscles in the shoulder girdle. Perform neck range of motion exercises by slowly moving your neck up and down (flexion/extension) and side to side (rotation), and then bring your right ear toward your right shoulder and your left ear toward your left shoulder (lateral flexion). This exercise stretches tight neck muscles.

Seek Intervention

If you’re experiencing neck and shoulder pain while cycling, you may want to seek care from a licensed health care provider. Many cyclists have benefitted from bodywork sessions with chiropractors and massage therapists. Other therapies, such as acupuncture and physical therapy, also are useful for treating pain or discomfort. Sports-minded practitioners will provide you with effective, in-office therapies and teach you the postural exercises you’ll need to stay healthy over time.