Do you ever wake up with a crick in your neck or find your neck sore and stiff after a long day at the office? Neck pain is a common complaint, and it can be triggered by everything from poor posture to muscle strain to underlying health conditions.
Though neck pain is common and often resolves on its own with time, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in the meantime. In this article, we’ll talk about what neck pain is, what causes it, and how to help neck pain. You’ll also learn some tips for preventing future neck pain.
What is Neck Pain?
The neck is made up of vertebrae that extend upward from your torso to the skull with cervical discs between the individual bones which absorb shock. In addition to bones, your neck consists of ligaments and muscles that support the head and allow for a healthy range of motion.
Abnormalities in the bones, ligaments, or muscles that make up the neck can cause stiffness, soreness, and neck pain. For many people, neck pain is an occasional issue related to poor posture or overuse – it can also be related to injury from falls, motor vehicle collisions, or sports accidents. In some cases, however, it can become chronic and may indicate a serious underlying injury or health issue.
If you suffer from neck pain that lasts for more than a few days, it’s worth talking to your doctor about your symptoms. Chronic neck pain or worsening neck pain can be a sign that something is wrong and ignoring it might make the problem worse.
The Top 7 Causes for Neck Pain
Neck pain feels different for different people, depending on the cause of the pain and the affected structures. Some people describe neck pain as a dull but persistent ache while, for others, it feels more like a burning sensation or a stabbing pain. Some people experience increased sensitivity with pressure on the neck and some develop an accompanying headache.
There are a wide variety of potential causes for neck pain, some of which are fairly obvious and easy to diagnose. Others, however, can develop over time and may complicate matters with symptoms that mimic other conditions. The best thing you can do is keep track of your symptoms and bring them to your doctor – they will be able to run the necessary tests to diagnose the issue and recommend the best form of treatment.
Here are some of the most common causes for neck pain:
- Aging – Osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and other degenerative conditions can increase your risk for neck pain as you get older.
- Injury – Trauma from the sudden forced movement of the head or neck along with rebound in the opposite direction (known as whiplash) can cause neck pain and soreness.
- Stress – Both mental and physical stress can trigger neck pain. When you’re feeling stressed out, you may tighten your neck muscles which can lead to muscle strain. Physical stress related to herniated discs or pinched nerves can also be a cause.
- Strain – Muscle strain from overuse can cause neck pain. Everything from spending too many hours hunched over the computer to reading in bed can be a trigger.
- Poor posture – Having weak abdominal muscles from sitting for long periods of time and spending a great deal of time hunched over can lead to neck pain.
- Obesity – Being overweight or obese can put a great deal of strain on your bones, muscles, and joints which may predispose you to neck pain.
- Disease – A variety of health conditions like meningitis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancerous growths, and bone spurs can all contribute to neck pain.
When it comes to diagnosing neck and shoulder pain, your doctor will need to complete a physical exam and review your medical history. Your doctor will likely need to feel your neck and move your head to locate the source of your pain and to identify any concurrent issues with motion or flexibility. Be prepared to answer questions about previous injuries or work and other activities you do that might affect your neck. Your doctor will also likely use imaging tests to confirm a diagnosis.
How to Resolve Neck Pain
Most mild to moderate cases of neck pain resolve themselves with rest and self-care within two or three weeks. If your neck pain persists or worsens, however, you may need to talk to your doctor about other treatment options. The most common methods of neck pain relief include medication, therapy, and surgery. There are also some lifestyle changes and home remedies that might help.
The two most commonly prescribed forms of medication for neck pain are anti-inflammatories and pain relievers. In some cases, antidepressants and anticonvulsants can also help with pain.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly recommended for neck pain – these are available over-the-counter and in prescription strength. There are a wide variety of different options, but you’re probably familiar with names like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Acetaminophen works a little differently than other pain relievers in that it blocks the transmission of pain signals to the brain but doesn’t reduce inflammation.
Other medications that might be recommended for serious neck pain include muscle relaxants, opioids, and oral steroids. Muscle relaxants are often used to treat neck pain related to musculoskeletal injury like whiplash. Opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone are very strong pain relievers available by prescription only. They are usually prescribed for severe pain, such as recovery from surgery, and come with a fairly high risk for misuse and abuse. Oral steroids like prednisone and methylprednisolone are anti-inflammatories that can be prescribed for short-term therapy.
While over-the-counter medications can help relieve neck pain and reduce inflammation, you may need more to actually resolve the issue. Physical therapy can help address issues with poor posture and your physical therapist can give you exercises to gently stretch and strengthen the neck muscles. Physical therapists also have access to tools like electrical stimulation which could help.
Another form of therapy that may help with certain forms of neck pain is traction. This involves using weights, pulleys, or an air bladder to stretch the neck gently. It is particularly beneficial for neck pain related to pinched nerves or nerve root irritation.
When all else fails, immobilizing the neck with a soft collar can help reduce pressure on the affected structures and give them time to heal. Just keep in mind that using a collar for more than three hours at a time or for a period longer than a week or two can do more harm than good – only use this therapy with your doctor’s recommendation and supervision.
Surgical procedures may be an option for certain causes of neck pain, primarily pinched nerves and spinal cord compression. One option is to inject corticosteroids near the root of the affected nerve, into the bones of the cervical spine, or in the neck muscles to relieve pain. Surgery is another option, though rarely required for neck pain, and may help relieve compression on the nerves or spinal cord.
- Self-Care Measures
For mild to moderate neck pain, self-care measures are often all you need. Over-the-counter pain relievers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen can help relieve neck muscle pain and reduce accompanying inflammation. Another trick to reduce inflammation is applying cold, like an ice pack, for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. You may also want to alternate cold with heat, using a heating pad or taking a warm shower after applying ice.
Stretching is also an effective neck pain treatment. After the worst of the pain has gone away, it should be safe to gently stretch the neck muscles by tilting, bending, and rotating your neck. You may want to loosen up the muscles first with a heating pad or massage gun just to be sure you don’t accidentally injure yourself. Using a massage gun on its own can also help relieve stiffness and muscle tension that could be contributing to your neck pain. You can learn more about how to use a massage gun here.
- Alternative Medicine
When it comes to neck pain treatment, there are a wide variety of options, and it may take some trial and error to find one that works for you. If traditional medicine and therapy haven’t quite done the trick, you might consider some alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic care, or massage.
Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that involves inserting very thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body. Most commonly used to treat pain, acupuncture can also be used to manage stress or support overall wellness. Chiropractic care may also help with neck pain, especially if your pain is related to osteoarthritis, herniated disc, or muscle strain.
Another form of alternative medicine you might consider for neck pain is massage therapy. Massage can help loosen knots or points of tension in your neck and back which could be contributing to neck and shoulder pain. A licensed massage therapist is trained to identify areas of tightness and knows how to release them, though you can also administer massage therapy to yourself using a massage gun. If you use a massage gun, just be sure to start on the lowest speed setting until you get used to it.
Tips for Preventing Neck Pain
You can’t always prevent neck pain when it’s the result of an accident or illness, but there are certain things you can do to protect yourself against neck pain related to muscle strain and age-related wear and tear. Here are some simple things you can do to help prevent neck pain:
- Focus on good posture. Poor posture from slouching over your smartphone or sitting hunched at a computer desk all day is a recipe for neck and back pain, so pay attention to your posture.
- Take breaks when sitting down. When you’re working long hours or traveling long distances, try to take frequent breaks to stand up, walk around, and stretch your neck and shoulders.
- Adjust the height of your desk chair. Proper posture when seated at your desk is important. Adjust the height of your chair so your knees are slightly lower than your hips and the monitor is at eye level. Be sure to use the armrests as well to relieve pressure on the shoulders.
- Go hands-free with your phone. Avoid talking on the phone with it tucked between your ear and your shoulder – put it on speakerphone or use headphones.
- Quit smoking or using tobacco. Smoking and using tobacco products can dehydrate and shrink the discs that absorb shock from your spine, leading to neck pain over time.
- Distribute carrying weight evenly. Whether you’re lugging around schoolbooks or carrying a briefcase to work, distribute the weight evenly across both shoulders instead of one shoulder.
- Use the right pillow for sleeping. Make sure your head and neck are in proper alignment while you sleep – this may require you to put a small pillow under your neck or, if you sleep on your back, try elevating your thighs with a pillow to straighten out your spine.
Whether it’s preventing neck pain or simply taking care of yourself, the best thing you can do is listen to your body. Be smart when it comes to lifting heavy objects, working out, or even just completing daily tasks because all it takes is one wrong move to cause an injury that could affect you for weeks, months, or even years on end. Similarly, if you’re experiencing neck pain, talk to your doctor sooner rather than later to identify the underlying cause and to find out how to help neck pain.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can a stiff neck last?
If you have a sore, stiff neck with restricted range of motion, your symptoms could last anywhere from a day or two to several weeks – it just depends on the cause and the severity. Self-care measures like rest, applying heat or cold, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers can help speed your recovery.
How can I loosen neck muscles?
One way to loosen your neck muscles is to gently stretch them by slowly turning your head to the right and left or tilting your head side to side. Applying heat or ice, taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, and getting a massage may also help. Another at-home option is to use a massage gun to gently loosen the stiff muscles in your neck.
Should I go to a chiropractor for neck pain?
While most people associate chiropractors with back issues, these medical professionals are qualified to address issues with the entire spine, including the neck. It never hurts to consult with a chiropractor, especially if neck pain, soreness, or stiffness are an ongoing issue.