Neck pain is discomfort in any of the structures in the neck. These include muscles and nerves as well as spinal vertebrae and the cushioning disks in between. Neck pain may also come from areas near the neck such as the shoulder, jaw, head, and upper arms.
When your neck is sore, you may have difficulty moving it, especially to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck.
If neck pain involves nerves (for example, significant muscle spasm pinching on a nerve or a disk pressing on a nerve), you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, hand, or elsewhere.
A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Usually, everyday activities are to blame. Such activities include bending over a desk for hours, having poor posture while watching TV or reading, placing your computer monitor too high or too low, sleeping in an uncomfortable position, or twisting and turning the neck in a jarring manner while exercising.
Traumatic accidents or falls can cause severe neck injuries like vertebral fractures, whiplash, blood vessel injury, and even paralysis.
Other causes include:
• Other medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia
• Cervical arthritis or spondylosis
• Ruptured disk
• Small fractures to the spine from osteoporosis
• Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
• Infection of the spine (osteomyelitis, diskitis, abscess)
• Cancer that involves the spine
For minor, common causes of neck pain:
• Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
• Apply heat or ice to the painful area. One good method is to use ice for the first 48 – 72 hours, then use heat after that. Heat may be applied with hot showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad. Be careful not to fall asleep with a heating pad on.
• Stop normal physical activity for the first few days. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
• Perform slow range-of-motion exercises — up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear — to gently stretch the neck muscles.
• gently massage the sore or painful areas.
• Try sleeping on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow.
• Use a soft neck collar for a short period of time to relieve discomfort.
You may want to reduce your activity only for the first couple of days. Then slowly resume your usual activities. Do not perform activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back or neck for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins. After 2 – 3 weeks, slowly resume exercise. We can help you decide when to begin stretching and strengthening exercises and how to do them.
Avoid the following exercises during your initial recovery, unless your doctor or massage therapist says it is okay:
• Weight lifting
• Leg lifts when lying on your stomach
• Sit-ups with straight legs (rather than bent knees)
What to expect at our office
We will perform a physical examination and ask detailed questions about your neck pain, including how often it occurs and how much it hurts. Other questions may include:
• Is your pain in the front, back, or side of your neck?
• Are both sides of your neck affected equally?
• When did the pain first develop?
• Is it painful all the time or does the pain come and go?
• Can you touch your chin to your chest?
• What makes your neck feel worse? What makes your neck feel better?
• Do you have neck weakness or neck stiffness?
• Do you have any accompanying symptoms like numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand?
• Do you have swollen glands or a lump in your neck?
These questions help us determine the cause of your neck pain and whether it is likely to quickly get better with simple measures such as ice, mild painkillers, massage therapy/EIMS, and proper exercises. Most of the time, neck pain will get better in 4 – 6 weeks using these approaches.