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Is this cause for concern?
Neck pain is also called cervicalgia. The condition is common and usually isn’t a reason to worry. Neck pain can happen for many reasons and can usually be remedied through simple lifestyle changes.
For example, your muscles may be tense from sitting for hours at work with poor posture. Neck pain may also be a result of injury from a car crash or even muscle strain from overextending yourself during exercise.
Other symptoms include:
- neck pain that gets worse if you hold your head in one place
- tightness or spasms in your neck muscles
- difficulty moving your head
Although this condition can quite literally be a pain in the neck, you can do many things to treat it at home. In fact, a good number of people who have neck pain can see big improvements in just two to three weeks of at-home care.
Did you know that your head weighs around a whopping 12 pounds? That’s a lot for your muscles and ligaments to support all day long throughout your many activities. Your neck pain may be the result of doing too much.
One way to help with this pain is to relax. Take one to three days off from doing anything strenuous. Activities to avoid include weight-bearing exercise, like running, hiking, or playing tennis, and heavy lifting.
Try to lessen both pain and inflammation by applying a cold ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel to your neck. You can apply this cold therapy to the area for up to 20 minutes a few times a day. If you have diabetes or circulatory issues, you should limit using ice to just 10 minutes at a time.
You can also alternate cold therapy with heat. With heat, you’re working to ease muscle tension and pain. You may want to take a warm shower or hold a heating pad on your neck. Again, apply this therapy for up to 20 minutes, but only 10 if you have circulatory problems.
You can find a variety of different over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers at your corner drug store. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a popular option. There’s also ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), which combines pain relief with anti-inflammatory power. Naproxen sodium (Aleve) is another option.
No matter which pain reliever you choose, your neck pain may last for some time.
Taking time to stretch your neck each day may also help. You might want to wait to do any exercises until the worst of your pain has gone away.
Before you try any of these moves, consider warming up the area with a heating pad or performing them after taking a warm shower or bath.
- Look forward. Simply bring your chin slowly down to your chest. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Return back to your starting position.
- Tilt your head back and look up toward the ceiling. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Return to your starting position.
- Gently bring left your ear toward your left shoulder without actually making contact. Only tilt your head until you get a little stretch in your neck. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Return to your starting position.
- Repeat this move on your right side.
- Repeat the entire sequence three to five more times.
Once you stretch out your neck to your basic range of motion, you can also work on rotating your neck a bit.
- Face forward.
- Turn your head to one side, like you’re looking over your shoulder. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Slowly turn 180 degrees the other way. Hold again for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Repeat this sequence three to five times.
Now that you’ve warmed up, you can apply what’s called overpressure to extend the stretches you just tried.
- Sitting down, put your right hand under your right leg. This will keep your right shoulder down.
- Position your left arm over your head so that you can cover your right ear with your left hand.
- Moving your left ear toward (but not actually touching) your left shoulder like you did with the rotations, gently pull with your left hand to add extra stretch.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
- Repeat with the other side.
- Work up to doing this stretch three times on each side.
Staying in one position for too long may cause neck pain. In fact, you should aim to get up or move every 30 minutes from sitting or standing positions.
While you may want to rest the first few days after hurting your neck, getting into a regular exercise routine may help in the long run. Try doing aerobic exercises, like walking or using a stationary bike.
Working on your posture and doing different range of motion exercises are other good options.
Slumping over all day can create a lot of aches and pains. Take a look at yourself in the mirror to see if you’re standing or sitting up straight. If not, you may be straining the muscles and ligaments that support different parts of your body, like your head, creating neck pain.
What is good posture exactly? The answer depends on whether you’re sitting, standing, or lying down.
You should avoid crossing your legs. Instead, try putting your feet on the floor or even a footrest. You’ll want to keep a little space between the back of your knees and the front of your seat. Try keeping your knees at or below your hips. If your chair has an adjustable backrest, make sure it’s supporting the lower and middle parts of your back. Then relax your shoulders and get up from time to time to stretch.
You’ll want to focus your weight on the balls of your feet and keep your knees slightly bent. Your feet should be shoulder distance apart. Let your arms fall to the sides of your body naturally. Tuck your core in and stand up straight with your shoulders slightly pulled backward. Resist the urge to hold your head forward, backward, or even to the side — neutral is best. If you’re standing for a long period of time, shift your weight from your toes to your heels or from one foot to another.
When lying down
It’s important to make sure you’re using a mattress that works best for you. Firm may be best for back and neck pain. Sleeping with a pillow can also help. If you’re a stomach sleeper, you may want to try and change your position. That’s right, even a tweak like sleeping on your side or back can help. Try putting a pillow between your knees if you sleep on your side, as it can help keep your body in better alignment.
You may have heard that going to the chiropractor can help with all sorts of aches and pains. It’s true. Chiropractic adjustments target the spine. The neck is also called the cervical spine, so chiropractors work this area of the body as well. All that cracking you’ll hear is actually from very controlled forces applied to your joints.
Call ahead to ask about cost. Not all insurance carriers cover chiropractic work. Some offices offer what is called sliding scale pricing according to your ability to pay. It’s important to note that adjustments usually only provide short-term relief, so you may need to keep going many times to stay pain-free.
Sore muscles may also respond well to massage by a licensed practitioner. During a massage session, the muscles and other tissues in your neck are manipulated. This helps blood and other fluids flow freely.
There isn’t much scientific evidence that massage helps significantly with neck pain. That said, it may be a good complementary therapy to combine with other treatments that your doctor recommends.
A neck pillow may make or break your night of sleep. The effects can even last into the next day. Many different pillows on the market are supposed to help with neck pain. Evidence for which ones work is anecdotal, rather than research-based.
Alison Freer at New York Magazine recently shared that a certain brand “stopped [her] neck and shoulder pain cold.” What worked for her? The Tri-Core Petite Cervical Pillow. This pillow has a triangular divot in the center that helps to cradle your head during sleep. In other words, it helps to support your cervical curve. It comes in seven different sizes to suit different body sizes and shapes. Freer shares she purchased the petite version and that the regular or larger versions may actually be too big for some people.
Another brand you might try is Tempur-Pedic. The size of the pillow you choose is based on your height, body type, and sleep position. It has a special contoured design that helps to ergonomically cradle your head and neck as you sleep.
Acupuncture is an alternative treatment often used for pain relief. It’s performed by inserting tiny needles into different points of your body. While studies on acupuncture for neck pain have had mixed results, it may be worth trying a few times. In fact, people often see the best results after several acupuncture sessions versus just trying it once or twice.
Before you head to your appointment, make sure your acupuncturist is certified and using sterile needles. You may also want to call your insurance company to ask about coverage. Some insurance plans won’t cover acupuncture, while others will cover some or all of the appointment cost.
Learn more: Dry needling vs. acupuncture — which is right for you? »
If these home treatments don’t help your neck pain, make an appointment to see your doctor. Remember: Most people see improvement with their neck pain after two to three weeks of at-home treatment. Although most causes of cervicalgia aren’t a reason for concern, there are certain serious conditions, like meningitis, that may be causing your discomfort.
You should also let your doctor know if you experience numbness, lose strength in your hands or arms, or feel a shooting pain going down your arm from your shoulder. These are signs that something more serious may be going on with your health that needs immediate attention.