Got a pain in the neck? Here's how to treat it

You might still be able to walk around, but having a stiff, painful neck is a terrible experience. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to treat it yourself, experts say.

Neck pain is a very common ailment. According to a 2008 literature review, somewhere between 30 to 50 per cent of the adult population experiences neck pain in a given year. Between two and 12 per cent of the population experiences neck pain so severe, it limits their activities.

It’s usually caused by one of two things, according to Judy Chepeha, an orthopedic physical therapist and associate professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine.

The first is an injury of some kind, like whiplash from a car accident, or a sudden twist while playing a sport. “Those will typically end up in some sort of neck trauma or neck pain,” she said.

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic an event as a car accident either, she said. A bad baseball swing can be enough to cause damage if you’re not used to the strain, she said.

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The second kind is less easy to pinpoint: a strain, bad posture or some other unspecific problem, she said. “Things that people say, ‘I don’t know what happened, it just seemingly came out of the blue.’”

A lot of times, this might be the result of repetitive strain, she said, something like sitting at a computer for a long period of time, or lifting things in a certain way over and over.

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Some people experience neck pain just in their neck, and sometimes it spreads, leading to headaches and stiffness, Chepeha said.

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According to Pierre Côté, an epidemiologist and Canada Research Chair in disability prevention and rehabilitation at Ontario Tech University, there is sometimes a third cause of neck pain: your own mind.

Ruminating over the pain can make it worse, he said. “We all know that when we are anxious and stressed, we tend to tense up. That leads to increased tensions in the muscles and maybe posture that is not optimal.”

Fearing that they will make things worse, some people also limit their activities, he said, which has the exact opposite effect that they hoped.

Treating neck pain

So what should you do?

Chepeha and Côté both agree that you definitely shouldn’t stop moving your neck, even though it hurts.

“Stopping the neck from moving when you have neck pain is probably one of the worst things you can do,” Côté said.

In the 1990s and earlier, doctors often put patients with whiplash into a cervical collar to hold their head and neck in place.

“These are interventions now that are absolutely not recommended for patients with common neck pain,” he said, and that “probably did more harm than good.”

The neck joints can stiffen up, which can make the pain worse, and being completely immobile also just reinforces psychologically that there is something wrong, he said, again making it worse.

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Chepeha recommends that you regularly stretch out your neck.

“If you have a sore neck, certainly don’t push through pain, but work within your comfortable movement pattern,” she said.

“So if it hurts to take your right ear sideways towards your right shoulder, don’t go into that pattern into pain but move it within your pain-free range of motion.”

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Turn your neck just into where it starts to get stiff and painful, she said, similar to how you might stretch out a tight hamstring.

“Do it for about 15 to 20 seconds of a hold and then try and repeat that three or four times as you’re able.”

If you think your pain might be caused by poor posture or ergonomic problems at work, she said, you should look at solving those problems, too, so the pain doesn’t recur.

Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen don’t usually work very well to relieve neck pain, Côté said. But it’s fine to apply heat or ice if you find that helps.

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Most of the time, with regular motion, the pain should go away within a few days, Chepeha said.

But if it lasts for four or five days without getting better, or doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks, she recommends contacting a medical professional.

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And if your neck is really bugging you, she said, you shouldn’t feel guilty about asking someone about it.

“I find patients feel really bad about coming to see us with things that they feel are minor,” she said.

“You don’t have to have a limb falling off to go see someone. If it’s minor, sometimes that’s the best time to go because you can probably change things and prevent that recurrence.”

Additionally, if your neck pain was caused by a major trauma like a car accident, you should definitely be examined by a doctor, Côté said.

Other symptoms that might require further examination are a shooting pain or numbness down the arm, or sudden weight loss, chills and fever, or intense headaches, which could be indications of a more serious condition.

A doctor might recommend treatments like physiotherapy to stretch, exercise or manipulate the neck, Côté said, or in very severe cases, maybe prescribe a muscle relaxant.

Generally though, he said, you should try not to worry. “You always think that, ‘Oh my God, something’s broken. I have a broken ligament or something.’

“We know that the vast majority of neck pain is not related to anything serious.”

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