The expression “pain in the neck” is often used to describe something that is persistent and annoying, but needs to be dealt with or suffered through, no matter how uncomfortable. And everyone can relate since neck pain is a common annoyance, especially if you don’t have a comfortable mattress or pillows to sleep with or you spend a lot of time in front of the computer or traveling (Friday evening commutes, we’re looking at you).
Despite the expression, though, neck pain isn’t something you just have to tolerate until it goes away. For one thing, it’s preventable; for another, there are remedies and treatments you can do right at home. Keep reading to learn more and say bye-bye to stiff, achey necks.
Causes of neck pain
Because the neck is a flexible part of your body, plus it is the sole support for the weight of your head (contrary to what the cute kid in Jerry Maguire says, the average adult human head weighs 10 to 11 pounds, not eight), it can be prone to injury or other conditions that can be painful or make it hard to move.
“The most common cause of acute neck pain are acute mechanical neck pain and myofascial neck pain. These are commonly caused by prolonged staying of the neck in one position such as answering calls, being on a computer or the most common office jobs, those people are at risk. Other factors that affect it are emotional, psychological and physical stress, lack of sleep and sudden changes in temperature,” says Dr. Byron Garcia, a rehabilitation medicine, sports medicine, and scoliosis specialist who works with Perpetual Succour Hospital’s Rehab Solutions Inc. and at the University of Cebu Medical Center’s (UCMED) Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center.
Injuries and nerve compression
Whiplash injury, which is what happens when your head is jerked backward and then forward, thus straining your neck tissues, is another cause, and it’s common in situations like rear-end car collisions, according to the Mayo Clinic. Injuries can also result causing nerve compression or pinching, which can also be fairly painful.
Other diseases and medical conditions
Dr. Garcia cites diabetes and hypertension among the medical conditions that can make it more likely you’ll develop muscle strains which can lead to neck pain. Neck pain can also be a symptom of certain diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, and certain types of cancer, as well as conditions like osteoarthritis (something women are particularly prone to as the years go by, so make sure to keep your calcium levels up even when you’re in your 20s and 30s!).
Symptoms of neck pain
Of course, you could just go with the tried and true route of saying your neck is in pain, but the first step in treatment is pinpointing the cause of your pain, which is best done by examining its symptoms. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- Pain, especially pain that becomes worse as you hold your head in one position for too long
- Muscle tightness or spasms
- Stiffness in your neck, marked by difficulty moving your head
Treatment of neck pain
You’ll find it isn’t worth the trip to the doctor every time you feel twinges of pain or stiffness in your neck. In fact, neck pain will sometimes go away on its own, especially if you practice proper posture and can get a chance to rest and relax.
Dr. Garcia recommends a medication-free approach, especially if the pain is not too bad: “Treating neck pain is a proactive process. Patients can try to apply a warm compress for 15 mins and then stretch and relax the fatigued muscles. Getting a good amount of sleep [and] avoiding prolonged neck positions also helps. Patients should also be self-conscious as to what triggers the pain and when does this happen. Being active and doing light exercise also helps alleviate the pain and makes the recovery faster.”
Over-the-counter muscle relaxants and/or pain medication may help manage the symptoms until the neck pain goes away, but you should be very careful to follow usage directions carefully and see a doctor if the pain persists.
Some will also recommend alternative medicine practices like acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment, or therapeutic massages to alleviate neck pain. If you choose to go down this route, be careful about finding conscientious and reputable practitioners, and only after consulting your doctor.
However, persistent or severe cases may result in more specialized treatments. According to Dr. Garcia, for the cases of neck pain he’s treated, “we do conservative management together with the physiotherapists and use different modalities and exercise to help relax the muscle and decrease the pain. If it is too painful prescribing pain medications and muscle relaxants to shorten the healing process helps.”
Some of the specialized treatments for neck pain include:
- Immobilization: A soft collar can help support your head while your neck can heal, but this must not be worn to long for fear of worsening a strain or injury.
- Physical therapy: This can include posture correction and alignment, neck-strengthening exercises, and more.
- Steroids: Your doctor might prescribe or inject corticosteroid medications to reduce swelling, especially in cases where neck pain is caused by a pinched nerve.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): Here, tiny electrical impulses are applied to the affected area via electrodes attached to your skin.
- Traction: This method must be monitored by medical professionals as it uses a system of weights and pulleys to stretch your neck or other parts of your body.
When to see a doctor
Dr. Garcia says, “Fortunately, most cases of neck pain are self-limiting and can resolved spontaneously. But red flags that should indicate [you need to] consult with a doctor would be a sharp tingling sensation or numbness running from the neck down to the tip of the fingers, severe pain upon moving the neck, and if the pain persists for more than a week.”
When you do see a doctor, some of the things you may want to mention include:
- When the pain started, and whether you have suffered neck injuries in the past
- Where exactly the pain occurs and whether specific movements or actions alleviate or worsen the pain
- Whether the pain is dull, sharp or shooting and if it goes down to your arm
- Whether you’re experiencing any numbness or weakness
- Any other physical problems as well as medications and supplements you may be taking
It’s said that an ounce of prevention is often worth a pound of cure, and this is certainly the case when it comes to neck pain.
“Preventive measures should include proper workplace ergonomics, getting a good amount of sleep, avoiding stress, and, most importantly, being active and doing exercise or sports,” Dr. Garcia says.
More specifically, some of the things you can do to make sure neck pain doesn’t become a problem include:
- Improving your posture: Don’t hunch over a keyboard or slouch, no matter how tired or world-weary you might be! Keep your shoulders in a straight line over your hips whether sitting or standing, especially for long periods. Your head should be straight, ears directly over your shoulders.
- Take a break or three: Staying in one position too long can cause muscle strain, and not just in your neck. Even when you are busy, try to take a few minutes every hour or two to stand up, stretch, and just move around.
- Adjust your furniture to you, not the other way around: Spending a lot of time in front of the computer is inevitable for anyone who works an office or online job, but this is not an excuse! Keep your monitor at eye level, even if this means setting a box or perhaps a couple of books under it. Your knees should be lower than your thighs, and your keyboard should be positioned so your forearms are horizontal in front of you and your wrists straight. When speaking on the phone, use a headset or speaker phone instead of tucking it between your ear and shoulder.
- Lay down that heavy load: Travel light, even if all the traveling you do is between your home and the office. Avoid carrying heavy bags with over-the-shoulder straps. If you absolutely must carry heavy things with you, a backpack is a better option than a shoulder or messenger bag, but make sure to use it correctly: adjust the straps (the wider the better) properly, pack the heaviest items closer to your back, and distribute the weight evenly.
- Change your sleep position: Try to lie on your back instead of your side or stomach, aligning your head and neck with your body. A small pillow under your neck may help too.
As Dr. Garcia says, “Although acute mechanical neck pain can be quite common and self-limiting, it is very much preventable! Always be conscious of avoiding being in one position for too long, take good amounts of sleep, avoid stress, be more active and do exercise!”