Neck pain is a common problem that may be triggered by poor posture, a mild neck injury, or just age-related wear and tear. In most cases, the pain gets better with simple treatments you can do at home.
What is neck pain?
Everyone gets pain in the neck from time to time. Neck pain can occur anywhere in your neck, from the bottom of your head to the top of your shoulders. It can spread to your upper back or arms. Your neck may feel sore or stiff. The pain might limit how much you can move your head and neck.
Neck pain is rarely the sign of a serious illness. Most people feel better within a few days to a couple of weeks.
What causes neck pain?
Some common causes of neck pain are:
• Muscle tightness due to poor posture or stress
• Inflammation and muscle spasms caused by neck strain or injury
• Wear and tear related to aging
• Accidents causing whiplash, a quick forward and backward movement that strains the neck
As you get older, you are more likely to develop neck pain. Neck pain may be the result of age-related changes in the vertebrae, discs, muscles, and ligaments of the neck. Even simple daily activities, such as working at a computer or reading in bed, can strain your neck.
How is neck pain diagnosed?
Your clinician will ask you questions, go over your medical history, and do a physical exam. X-rays are not usually necessary, especially at first. If your neck pain does not improve after a few weeks, your clinician may order imaging tests to find out what is causing the pain.
How is neck pain treated?
Most neck pain responds well to simple treatments you can do at home.
• Ice. To help reduce inflammation and muscle spasms, first apply ice (wrapped in a towel or sealed in a plastic bag) to the area where your neck hurts. Leave the ice in place for 15-20 minutes so cold can penetrate the tissues. Repeat every 4-6 hours until symptoms improve.
• Heat. Once the inflammation has gone down, heat can help soothe tight muscles and make it easier for you to do exercises that will strengthen your neck.
○ Stand in a hot shower and let the water flow over your neck.
○ A hot bath can also be helpful, as long as your tub allows you to soak your neck in a comfortable position.
○ Warm a moist towel in the microwave and apply it to your neck for 10-15 minutes.
• Pain medications. In most cases, over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve) are enough to control neck pain. Muscle relaxants may help with stiffness and limited range of motion for some people, but they require a prescription and can cause side effects.
• Massage. If your neck muscles are still tight after a week or two of icing and using heat, try massaging both sides of your neck and the upper back muscles. You may want to warm up your neck with a hot towel before the massage begins. Ask a family member or friend to massage your neck while you lie on your stomach or sit backward in a padded chair, resting your head on the chair for support. You can also give yourself a neck massage using hand pressure or an electric hand-held massager.
• Exercise. Once the acute pain lets up, your doctor will probably recommend gentle stretching exercises to increase flexibility, strength, and range of motion.
Here are a few good neck exercises:
• Neck bending. Gently move your chin toward your chest as far as it is comfortable. Hold for a few seconds, feel the stretch, then return to the neutral position. Repeat 5 times.
• Neck rotation. Slowly turn your head to the right. Place tension on your chin with your fingertips. Hold for a few seconds and return to the center. Repeat to the left.
• Neck tilting. Tilt your head to the right, trying to touch your ear to the tip of your shoulder. Place tension on the temple with your fingertips. Hold for a few seconds and return to the center. Repeat to the left. Repeat (both sides) 4 more times.
• Head half-rolls. Relax your arms at your sides and gently roll your head from left to right several times. Feel the stretch in your neck muscles. Relax and repeat 5-10 times
• Shoulder rolls. Relax the arms and gently roll both shoulders in a circular motion. Feel the stretch as you move slowly. Repeat 5-10 times
• Vertical shoulder stretches. In a seated or standing position, take hold of one wrist and pull the arm overhead. Keep the shoulder, and back muscles relaxed. Hold for a few seconds, then repeat on the other side. Repeat for a total of 5 times on both sides
What kind of neck pain can be the sign of a more serious health problem?
Neck pain accompanied by a headache and fever could be a symptom of meningitis, an infection of the membranes around your brain. Severe pain after an injury could mean a broken bone or torn ligament. Other symptoms that might suggest a serious problem include pain that radiates beyond your neck, numbness or tingling in your fingers, weakness in an arm or leg, and any change in bladder or bowel habits. Call your doctor right away if you develop any of these symptoms.
What can I do to prevent neck pain from coming back?
Poor posture causes a lot of neck pain. Simple changes in your daily routine can help.
• Travel safely. If you drive long distances, stop and get out of the car at least every two hours. When you travel in a car, plane, or train, place a small pillow or rolled towel between your neck and a headrest to keep the normal curve in your neck.
• Maintain a good neck posture. Adjust the seat of your computer/desk chair so that the monitor is at eye level, your knees are slightly lower than your hips, and your arms rest comfortably on the chair's armrests.
• Avoid tucking your phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. If you are on the phone a lot, use a headset.
• Take frequent breaks at work. Shrug your shoulders up and down. Pull your shoulder blades together, and then relax. Pull your shoulders down while leaning your head to each side to stretch your neck muscles.
• Sleep well. Avoid sleeping with too many pillows or falling asleep in front of the television with your head on the arm of a couch. Choose a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck. Replace your pillow every year. If you read in bed, use a wedge-shaped pillow or portable "mini-desk" to keep your neck in a neutral position.
• Lift and carry the right way. When you are lifting something, bend at your knees, keeping your back neutral, and your head and shoulders up. Avoid carrying bags on one shoulder for a long period. Use a cross-body bag or a backpack-style bag to distribute weight more evenly- and be sure to wear the backpack correctly, with both arms through the shoulder loops.
This document is intended to provide health-related information so that you may be better informed. It is not a substitute for your care team's medical advice and should not be relied upon for treatment for specific medical conditions.
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