Deep tissue massages can be a pain, figuratively and literally. It starts out with drive-through traffic to the spa and swiping your credit card. Then one of those masseuses with hands of iron attacks your sore places with all their strength.
An old joke about deep massages is that you ‘limp in’ due to stiff muscles and ‘limp out’ with a fresh set of bruises. This is an exaggeration. A professional knows where and how hard to press to get therapeutic results. However, you don’t need a masseuse to relieve pain and stiffness in the neck. You can do it yourself, with a ball and the right technique.
What Are Massage Balls?
Massage balls, also called therapy balls, are round balls used for myofascial release. So what does that jargon mean? Your body can grow stiff and sore when the muscles and fascia (connective tissue) tighten up at certain ‘trigger points.’ This problem is uncomfortable, makes it harder to exercise and do daily tasks, and makes it more likely that you’ll get injured.
Myofascial release involves rolling the ball against the tight trigger point. You can roll it by hand, but the more intense and effective option is to set the ball on a wall or the ground and roll your neck against it. The pressure of the ball mimics your masseuse’s fierce and pitiless grip. It really gets in there and gives your muscles and fascia no choice but to release.
What Can Massage Balls Do?
Massage balls can be used on many parts of the body including the feet, hamstrings, hips, shoulders, etc. The neck is no exception. People tend to carry a lot of tension in their necks and shoulders. A massage ball is typically small and agile enough to get into the curves and angles there.
Massage ball therapy can supposedly:
- Relieve soreness after a hard workout
- Release tension and cricks in the neck
- Offer temporary relief from chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia
Therapy balls feel good in the short term, but remember that they attack the symptoms and not the root problem. For instance, if you have weak back muscles and slump in front of your computer, you’ll probably continue to experience neck pain after long workdays. A massage ball can give you short-term relief, but you’ll need to fix your posture and strengthen your back to permanently solve the problem.
It’s also possible to aggravate some conditions like slipped discs. For this reason, it’s a good idea to talk to a medical professional first if you have an injury or health condition. They’ll let you know what kind of neck massage is safe.
What to Look For in a Massage Ball for the Neck
The neck is a fairly small part of the body, so you’ll want a ball that’s small enough to work in the area. Choose a smaller ball for neck-only use, or a small to medium version if you’re also going to be rolling other body parts.
Firmness and Weight
These qualities are usually but not always linked. A heavy, dense ball will probably be firm, but a firm plastic ball with a hollow core may fairly light. Heavier massage balls tend to stay where you put them, useful when you’re rolling around on the floor. Lighter ones are more portable, an important concern as airlines continue to slash their weight limits.
Texture and Grip
You know those massage balls that resemble the head of a medieval mace? They may look like torture devices, but some people swear by the flexible rubber spikes. Other, milder versions of a textured therapy ball may instead have small nubs, dots, or ridges. Texture tends to concentrate pressure on the points of the texture, so be careful about the ball’s overall firmness. It also makes the ball easier to grasp and less likely to roll around.
Soft, squishy therapy balls are good for beginners or people with a lot of pain. However, they tend to not last as long as harder materials or solid balls.
Cooling and Heating
Certain balls can be cooled or heated. This is generally done by placing them in the refrigerator or in a pan of warm water. Heated massage balls can be wonderfully relaxing as the warmth penetrates your sore places and brings increased blood flow. If you’re willing to take extra time and an extra step in your self-massage routine, this might be worth your time.
Cooled balls, on the other hand, should be used cautiously if at all. The chill can cause your muscles to tighten up, reducing the effectiveness of the massage. It may also numb the area, causing you to miss pain signals until you end up hurting yourself.
Here is a new feature that’s mostly restricted to expensive therapy balls. The idea here is that the vibration penetrates into your neck, soothing your muscles. This should let you relax into the experience and get deeper into the stretch.
However, you may want to consider testing before you buy. Some people find steady vibration next to the neck to be nauseating. Others may be left underwhelmed if their ball has a low-power motor.
Different Kinds of Massage Balls
Massage balls fall into two general categories: sports balls and specially designed therapy balls
Pretty much any kind of ball used for a sport can be also used for the myofascial release of your neck. Well, maybe you should steer clear of bowling balls. However, some popular options include:
Tennis balls are commonly available and have a certain amount of ‘give’ to the surface. This makes them fairly accessible to beginners.
Lacrosse relies on speed and power, so these balls’ smooth, hard surface is designed to reduce drag. This makes them a good, firm option for people who dislike texture.
These are small and rigid, so they offer very intense pressure. The neck is a delicate part of the body, so be careful with these. However, one bonus is that the divots on the surface also help keep them from rolling out from underneath you.
Layered Foam Balls
These balls use two or more densities of foam, typically with a harder core and softer exterior. They are gentler than their rigid cousins, with varying amounts of giving when squeezed.
Textured options put the ‘massage’ in ‘massage balls.’ The nubs, spikes, and ridges act like fingertips digging firmly into the sore spots that need attention. Note that the texture can catch and pull at clothes and long hair, so keep yours out of the way during your myofascial session.
One of the tricky parts of using a therapy ball is keeping it in the right place. While you’re contorting into position, they tend to shoot out and scare the cat. Roller balls seek to solve this problem by embedding about half of the ball in a case. The fit is just loose enough that the ball can roll and glide smoothly. The case gives you a flat-bottomed and easy-to-grip surface to work with.
If you’re looking for vibration, you’ll need balls with electronic systems. These are pricey and tend to be more rigid. Softly cushioned materials don’t transmit vibrations well.
Double or Peanut Balls
This self-massage option features two balls joined by a neck. It’s a naturally stable option that does one thing very well: rolling down along both sides a body part (in this case, your neck). However, peanut balls are less versatile than singles. If you’re trying to dig into a specific knotted place, you’ll struggle to get this style of therapy ball positioned correctly.
Which Ball is Right for You?
The answer here depends on what problem you’re trying to address. Do you suffer from neck stiffness due to a lot of screen time and not a lot of exercise? A firmer option like lacrosse or rollerball may fit the bill.
If you’re suffering from nerve damage or some other painful condition, talk to your doctor or physical therapist. The pressure offered by therapy balls can easily aggravate things. They may steer you towards softer choices like tennis balls and foam balls.
Large therapy balls of all types aren’t a good fit for use on the neck. Picture yourself lying on your back. There’s a small gap between your neck and the floor, right? Don’t try to squeeze a 6 plus inch, rock-hard object into that small gap. Your neck will curve up over that monster-sized therapy ball, throwing your spine out of alignment and leaving it vulnerable to damage.
Highly textured balls should be used with caution on this part of the body. When you’re lying on them, you’re focusing a lot of pressure on the tips of the points and ridges. This may be fine for well-padded areas like your gluteus maximus. However, your neck doesn’t have a lot of muscle and fat on it. You won’t need to go to extreme measures to reach the deep tissue and fascia.
How to Use a Massage Ball On Your Neck
Hand to Neck
This is an easy and gentle technique, good for when you’re first starting with a myofascial massage. You can also use this when you’re experimenting with a new type of ball. Here’s how to do it:
- Cup the ball in your hand and press it to the sides of your neck. You’re aiming for a level of pressure between ‘gentle touch’ and ‘digging in.’
- Roll the ball up and down, paying attention to the meaty part of the trapezius muscle. This is at the side of your neck, low down near where it meets your shoulders.
- When you feel a sore spot, stop and press the ball more firmly against the trigger point. Aim for 30 seconds to 1 minute of pressure.
- As this time passes, you should feel the pain and stiffness fading back. Your neck may feel warmer, and you may sense the ball ‘sinking in’ more. Be patient and don’t press too aggressively.
- Move on, search for the next sore trigger point, and so on.
- Roll out the other side of your neck with the same technique.
- If you have enough shoulder mobility, you can move from the sides of your neck to the back.
For the back of the neck, you’ll want to pay particular attention to:
- Where the neck meets the shoulder blades.
- All along the two vertical lines of muscle alongside the spine.
- The top of the neck, where those muscles reach the head.
The neck is a tender, nerve-rich area. Here are a few places to be careful about or avoid:
Directly down the spine. This is a no-go zone. There’s very little soft tissue over the spinal column. It’s unlikely to get strained muscles and stiff fascia, but you are likely to bruise yourself as you roll a hardball over those bones.
Down the front of the throat. Just like with the spine, there’s virtually no cushioning material to protect your Adam’s apple, trachea, and esophagus. You’re also unlikely to have any sore trigger points here, so make this another no-go zone.
High up the sides of the neck. If you have soreness near your jaw (such as from grinding your teeth due to stress), very light pressure may be okay. However, don’t compress the jugular vein. You’re not likely to knock yourself out, but rolling here is of limited therapeutic use and could be dangerous. If you feel dizziness or tingling, you should stop immediately.
Neck to Wall
This technique follows the same steps as above. However, you’ll be sandwiching your therapy ball between your neck and a convenient stretch of wall.
One advantage here is that you can apply a medium amount of force, easily adjusted by shifting your weight on your feet. You also don’t have to worry about getting down on the floor and up again.
The disadvantage is that, although you can easily massage the back of your neck, the sides will be a challenge. Another thing to remember is that, since you are no longer holding the ball, there is a chance that it might fly loose. If you’re struggling to control the ball, try rolling your head from side to side instead of rolling your body up and down. This may help you keep the massager in place.
Neck to Floor
Same techniques, a new position. Here, you rest the ball on the floor and lie down on top of it. This lets the full weight of your body push against the massage ball. It can be surprisingly intense, as your skull is heavy. That makes it a good choice for experienced people who know what they need and what to expect from that particular therapy ball.
However, the neck to floor technique offers the least control of how much pressure you’re using. If you do this on hard, smooth surfaces, you also need to guard against the ball escape. Finally, just like in the neck-to-wall technique, you likely won’t be able to tackle the sore sides of your neck.
One tip here is to try laying with your knees bent and feet planted. That gives you more leverage for wiggling against the ball.