Does your neck hurt today? If so, you’re not alone.
About 15% of adults in the US, or more than 3 million people, are thought to suffer from neck pain at any given time.
For many, that pain will abate within days or weeks. For some, however, an achy neck can become chronic…and lead to other problems.
“Neck pain can range from minor to excruciating,” says Scott Curtis, DO, of Princeton Spine and Joint Center in Princeton, New Jersey. As a result, it can interfere “with daily activities, such as the ability to dress, concentrate or sleep.”
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing a sore, stiff neck.
Potential Causes of Neck Pain
The part of your spine that runs through your neck is a marvel of bioengineering—but its complexity can lead to a host of problems.
Also known as thecervical spine, it consists of sevenvertebrae, or neckbones, separated byspinal discs, which give the neck its ability to support the head while allowing for free movement. Ligaments, muscles and tendons help stabilize and move the entire assembly.
In the majority of cases, neck pain develops in one of two ways:
- Following an injury, such as being in a car accident or sleeping in an awkward position; pain can occur immediately, or in the case of an accident, it might begin hours or a few days after the injury occurs
- Slowly over time as the result of long-term poor posture, repetitive motion or wear and tear; this includes “tech neck,” pain caused by looking down at a phone or other digital device for long periods of time
You shouldalways seek emergency care after trauma such as a hard fall or car crash, even if you have no initial symptoms.
Neck pain may present itself as general soreness or sharp, stabbing pains in one spot; you may also experience stiffness or spasms, or pain that radiates into the shoulder and arm(radicular pain).Some people develop headaches or pain between the shoulder blades that stem from problems in the neck.
One problem with neck pain is that it can be difficult to pin down. It “might be constant, go away quickly, come and go regularly or return intermittently,” says Curtis. “Certain activities or movements, such as sneezing or coughing, could make the pain worse.”
Long-term postural problems, such as hunching over a computer all day, can cause neck muscles to tighten; as they do, “they put more pressure on the discs. That makes the discs wear out faster, and as the discs wear out faster, they can bulge or even rupture,” explains K. Daniel Riew, MD, of Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian. If spinal degeneration continues, the space for the spinal cord or the nerves that branch off the cord can narrow, causing a condition calledstenosis.
Curtis recommends consulting your practitioner “if pain persists or continues to interfere with routine activities, such as sleeping through the night.” He adds that underlying health issues may be indicated by neck pain accompanied by “fever or chills, pain or tingling that radiates into the arm(s) or leg(s) and problems with balance or coordination.”
The Top Five Tips for Avoiding Neck Pain
Chronic neck discomfort is…well, a pain in the neck. Here are the best ways to keep your neck happy.
Use Tech in a Neck-Friendly Way
Technology use is one of today’s biggest drivers of neck problems: “Virtually anybody who spends a lot of time on a computer is eventually going to complain about it,” says Riew.
That makes learning how to use tech properly a crucial factor in forestalling neck discomfort.
For starters, “be sure that the level of your eyes are even with the top third of the computer monitor,” advises Marco Funiciello, DO, of the Princeton Spine and Joint Center. “Also, consider a standing desk as standing leads to a more natural position and dissuades us from hunching forward.”
If you tend to use your laptop in a single location most of the time, try connecting it to a separate monitor or setting it on a surface at eye level.
Your phone is another neck-stressing culprit.
“One way you may not even realize that you’re aggravating your neck is by cradling your phone while talking, which puts extra stress on your cervical spine,” Funiciello says. “It is also common for people to bend the head forward while looking down to read a phone or tablet for hours a day, which can contribute to painful neck.”
He advises using a hands-free headset to make calls, holding the phone up when texting and taking frequent breaks to stretch your neck.
Maintain Good Posture…
Remember how your mother would tell you to stop slouching? Mom was right.
“When you hunch forward, extra stress is placed on your spine,” says Funiciello. “Maintaining correct posture throughout the day keeps the head naturally balanced on the cervical spine and may reduce pain.”
Extend that postural awareness to how you carry your daily stuff.
If you use a backpack, wear it over both shoulders, not just hanging off one arm.
For briefcases and purses, travel as lightly as you can: Unnecessary keys, spare change and mini-tools such as spare scissors or utility knives all add excess weight and can be left home.
In addition, consider paring down to a smaller purse or backpack, maybe one made from a lighter material. And skip any fashion hardware such as extra buckles, zippers and straps.
…And That Includes Sitting Properly
On the other hand, your mom may have also told you to sit up straight…which actually isn’t a good idea.
“When you sit with your back straight, you not only put a lot of force on the discs in your lower back, but the muscles in the back of the neck have to contract to hold the head up. So, if you sit straight up for hours, you may end up with both back and neck pain,” Riew explains.
He suggests sitting in your chair while “reclining 25 to 30 degrees with a good lumbar support to prevent slouching. When you lean back, part of your body’s weight goes into the chair, instead of straight down your spine.”
That may entail getting a better chair, one with proper lumbar support as well as a headrest, which can also help keep your spine in a neutral position.
Use the Correct Sleep Positions…
How you sleep can have a major effect on your neck.
“Sleeping on your stomach is tough on your spine, because the back is arched and your neck is turned to the side,” say the folks at Harvard Health. “Two sleeping positions are easiest on the neck: on your side or on your back.”
It may be tough to change sleeping positions you’ve always used, “not to mention that we don't often wake up in the same position in which we fell asleep,” notes Harvard. “Still, it's worth trying to start the night sleeping on your back or side in a well-supported, healthy position.”
…And the Correct Pillow
The real key to protecting your neck while you sleep lies in the pillow you use.
“If you sleep on your back, choose a rounded pillow to support the natural curve of your neck, with a flatter pillow cushioning your head,” advises Harvard Health. “This can be achieved by tucking a small neck roll into the pillowcase of a flatter, softer pillow, or by using a special pillow that has a built-in neck support with an indentation for the head to rest in.”
For side sleeping, use that is higher under your neck than your head.
You may have to experiment with several different types of pillows—feather, memory foam, even water—before finding what works for you.
Other Ways to Protect Your Neck
One underappreciated way of maintaining a healthy neck is staying hydrated, since your spinal discs are mostly made of water. Others include:
Exercise.Start by simply moving around more. Riew advises getting up and walking around every 30 minutes or so if you have a desk job; as he notes, “That’ll get blood circulating, and it will get your neck in a different position.” Riew also recommends 20- to 30-minute sessions of aerobic activity three or four times a week to maintain general well-being as well as a healthy neck and back. Jogging, brisk walking and elliptical work all qualify. Another option is swimming (find strokes that don’t stress your neck) or pool-based exercises. As Funiciello puts it, “Being in the water adds buoyancy, which means less stress on the spine.”
Stretching.Another way to keep your neck strong and flexible is by doing short sets of stretches throughout the day. One is the chin tuck; with your head level, pull your head back until you feel a stretch at the base of your neck; hold for 5 seconds before returning to the start position and repeat 10 times. (You can find other neck exercises here.)
Physical therapy.Funiciello suggests checking with your practitioner to see if physical therapy might help: “Improving the neck’s strength and flexibility may help better support the cervical spine and reduce pain.” A physical therapist may be able to identify posture issues and provide exercises that target specific areas of weakness.
Gua sha.This Traditional Chinese Medicine practice involves scraping a spoon-like tool over the skin until small red spots (petechiae) form (they clear up in a few days). “It’s applied to areas of the body where blood circulation is believed to be stagnant and blocking energy (called ‘qi’),” explains Funiciello. Some evidence suggests it may be helpful. Acupuncturists, physical therapists and massage therapists may offer gua sha as part of their practices; avoid using it on damaged or thinning skin or where moles are present.
Mental approaches.Stress is known to cause neck pain, so it makes sense that meditation, which relaxes the mind, may help. Journaling, which involves writing out your emotions, is another approach; you can also use a journal to note what tends to cause pain flareups, including changes in diet or activity level. And because chronic pain of any kind can be frustrating, Funiciello suggests tryingcognitive behavioral therapy: A therapist may help you find ways to see things in a more positive light, leaving you “better able to follow the treatment plan for your neck pain.”
Easing Neck Pain
Minor neck pain can be treated at home with what Curtis calls a “short period of rest,” adding, “some movement is typically encouraged to prevent the neck from becoming weaker and/or stiffer.” Try gentle stretching; if what you’re doing hurts, stop and try another motion.
Applying ice can reduce pain and swelling, while heat can help increase blood flow and encourage muscle relaxation. Don’t use either for more than 20 minutes at a time, and take at least a two-hour break between applications to give your skin time to recover.
Sometimes neck pain is related totrigger points, tender spots in muscles or connective tissue. These points are often found in the upper back and where the back meets the neck, and can be gently massaged with a foam roller or a racquetball (see instructions here).
In fact, massage in general “can soothe muscle tension and spasms, reducing pain and promoting relaxation,” says Curtis; you can find a massage therapist here. Acupuncture or chiropractic sessions may also be helpful.
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.