At one time or another, you’ve undoubtedly muttered to yourself, “What a pain in the neck.” Of course, you’re generally referring to an annoyance, not to a literal ache in the real estate that connects your head to your shoulders. Nonetheless, there will come a time when your neck does ache and you’ll wonder why and what to do about it. Let’s demystify neck pain so you know how to react when it occurs.

Causes of Neck Pain

Neck pain refers to pain that occurs anywhere in the region starting at the base of the skull and ending at the shoulders. The neck comprises the bones and joints of your cervical spine, otherwise known as your neck vertebrae; the muscles and ligaments that keep the cervical spine together; and the discs separating your vertebrae and serving as shock absorbers.

It’s not unexpected that your neck muscles, ligaments and bones are subject to the same wear and tear as the rest of your body. Overuse, poor positioning or injury can take their toll, leading to stiffness, soreness or extreme pain.

Chronic conditions are one cause of neck pain. Damage to the discs in your neck over time can lead to a pinched nerve, causing pain in one side of the neck that may involve tingling, numbness and pain that radiates down to your hand, while osteoarthritis can cause pain due to joint breakdown.

In addition, poor positioning of your neck may also cause pain or stiffness, and there are numerous culprits for such behaviour. You may spend a lot of time hunched over your computer or your cellphone; you may sleep with your neck at an odd angle; or you may angle your neck unnaturally, as required to hold a phone between neck and shoulder. In addition, dealing with a lot of stress often leads to neck tension.

Finally, injury can lead to neck pain, discomfort that is sudden and severe. Car accidents and the resulting whiplash, sports collisions at speed or direct blows to the back of the head are sources of acute injury and pain. Neck injuries must be approached with caution, because an injury to the spinal cord could be involved.

Treating Neck Pain

If you experience trauma to the neck, the injury could be serious. Your neck should be immobilized until you can be moved safely and evaluated medically to ensure that there is no spinal cord injury.

Chronic conditions require ongoing treatment that may include physiotherapy, while a garden variety stiff neck should first be treated with rest and ice to prevent inflammation – apply the ice during the first 24-to-48 hours after injury.

You may also want to take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine to relieve the pain. Afterward, you may wish to use heat on the neck to stimulate blood flow and promote healing.

To speed your recovery and prevent a recurrence of neck pain, you’ll want exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles in your neck, shoulders and back.

A physiotherapist will be able to guide you in appropriate therapeutic exercises. Your regimen will probably include isometric exercises, where neck muscles are tightened against and opposing force, and range-of-motion exercises that work to relax and lengthen your neck muscles.

Physiotherapists also employ treatments such as ultrasound, soft tissue release and joint mobilization. To keep the neck strong and flexible over with a good range of motion, you’ll want to continue prescribed exercises on an ongoing basis.

Preventing Neck Pain

Why court discomfort? If you have been dealing with a stiff neck, no doubt you don’t want to experience another one. There are a number of measures you can take to keep it from recurring.

  • At night, sleep on your side or your back, rather than on your stomach. People who sleep on their stomachs tend to twist their necks into awkward positions during the night. In addition, don’t use too many pillows in bed, because more than one pillow under your head can restrict its range of motion.
  • At work, don’t sit in one position for too long; be sure to get up and move around regularly so your neck isn’t stuck in an awkward position.
  • Ensure that your computer screen is at eye level so your neck isn’t tilted inappropriately; if you’re using a tablet, tilt the screen to a 45-degree angle or prop it on a pillow; if you leave it flat, your head will be bent down, stretching the ligaments.
  • If you spend a lot of time on the phone, wear a headset or an earpiece to prevent awkward positioning of your head and neck.

So, don’t let your pain in the neck debilitate you. Seek the treatment you need and commit to an ongoing prevention regimen.

Let's get you some relief for your neck pain!