young woman holding her neck due to neck pain caused by exercise or overexertion

Neck Pain 101: Symptoms, Types, Causes, Exercises & Treatment

Experiencing neck pain or a stiff neck? Find out the possible causes, treatment options, and stretches & exercises that can help with neck pain relief.

by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.

It is not surprising that many of us have experienced neck pain at least once in our life; after all, it’s such a common complaint. 

However, while it is common, we still can’t help but worry, especially if the pain persists. In this article, we’re going to delve deeper into neck pain, including its symptoms and causes, as well as common home remedies and treatment options available.

Neck Pain Symptoms

Those who have dealt with neck pain a couple of times will understand that there is more than one way to describe neck pain. According to experts, there are 7 “faces” of neck pain:

Achy and Sore

This symptom generally describes muscle pain. You often feel it after over exerting your neck and shoulder muscles or undergoing prolonged physical stress. If you have “hard knots” that are tender to touch anywhere in your neck or shoulders, that’s probably muscle pain.

Facet Joint Pain

If you feel a sharp or deep pain somewhere in the middle of your neck, you may have facet joint pain. This symptom affects the vertebrae joints and often worsens when you turn your head to the affected side. Arthritis can also affect the facet joints, and if that’s the case, then your neck may hurt after a period of overactivity or inactivity.

Muscle Spasm

Have you ever woken up with a painful, stiff neck? If you have, it was probably a muscle spasm, which happens when our neck muscles become tight or knotted. The exact cause of muscle spasm is often unknown, but a spine disc or nerve problem may trigger it. Likewise, emotional stress may also cause neck muscle spasm.

Neck-related Headache

Some people also experience neck-related headaches, which affect the back of the head and the upper portion of the neck. In most cases, people experience this symptom due to muscle spasm or tension, so it feels more dull than sharp. The back of your neck may feel stiff and tender, and movement often makes the pain worse.

Referred Pain

People who experience neck pain after a particular activity may be having what doctors call referred pain. If you have referred pain, you may feel pain in one part of the body, but the root cause actually stems from another body part. For instance, experiencing neck pain after a strenuous physical activity may be indicative of a heart problem. On the other hand, neck pain after meals may suggest oesophagal issues.

Nerve Pain

Problems in any of the nerves located in the neck may also trigger neck pain. When one experiences neck pain due to a nerve problem, they may have a sharp or shooting sensation that disappears quickly. It is also possible that the pain comes with pins and needles or extends to our arms and hands.

Bone Pain

Some people feel the pain deep within their bones. If that’s the case, then the cervical vertebrae may be affected. If you feel bone pain, consult a doctor right away as it may indicate a more serious health risk.

When Should I See a Doctor for Neck Pain?

When we experience a sore or stiff neck, many of us may turn to home remedies. However, if not done right, self-diagnosis and treatment can do more harm than good. The best course of action you can take is to consult a doctor to find the root cause and get the right treatment in a timely manner.

According to reports, if your neck pain doesn’t improve or go away within seven days, it is a must to go to the doctor. Chronic neck pain that lasts for weeks and recurs in months must also be checked. Likewise, go to the doctor immediately if your neck pain occurs due to a hard fall, a vehicular accident, or a sports injury.

Here are some other signs that suggest that you should visit a doctor as soon as possible:

  • Severe, which usually means your neck is too painful.
  • Not responding to pain medications.
  • The kind that spreads down your arms or legs.
  • Persistent, which means that it’s constantly there for days without relief.
  • Accompanied by weakness, numbness, or tingling.
  • Accompanied by headache with fever.
  • The kind that prevents you from touching your chin to chest.

Remember that you do not need to wait for any of the symptoms above to occur before getting medical attention. If your neck causes considerable discomfort and interferes with your daily routine (e.g. you find it hard to sleep because of the pain), don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.

Neck Pain Causes

From the discussion about neck pain symptoms above, we already understand that muscle strains, injuries, and nerve and joint problems may cause neck pain. In this section, we will go over these neck pain causes in greater detail.

Repeated Actions

When repeated over an extended period, certain actions can cause neck muscle spasm, tension, strain or even trigger joint inflammation. Some of these actions include:

  • Poor posture, like leaning your head forward or turning it in an odd position. Sometimes when we are focused on watching something or working, we may not notice that we are in an awkward position that may induce neck pain.
  • Doing the “Thinking Pose” over an extended period of time – a position where you rest your head or forehead on your fist or arm – can also cause neck pain.
  • Stress can result in neck pain. Do you notice how your muscles tighten when you are stressed? This applies to your neck muscles as well, particularly the muscles that run along the back of your head to your shoulders. When these muscles are tense, you may experience pain in the back of your neck.
  • Exercises or work that use your arms and upper body.

Acute Injuries

Sudden actions or movement may cause acute injuries or damages in the neck that result in neck pain. These injuries can be minor or severe, but it’s always best to check in with a doctor especially if the pain persists.

Minor neck injuries may result from tripping, over twisting the neck muscles or falling from a short distance. Severe neck injuries may happen after a vehicular accident, a sports injury, a blow to the head, or a fall from significant heights. Stab wounds and strangulation may likewise trigger severe neck pain.

Neck injuries may result in the following situations that trigger minor or severe neck pain:

  • Muscle strain or sprain.
  • Fracture or dislocation in the spine: These cases must be attended to with care as spine injuries can lead to paralysis.
  • Ruptured or torn disc: When our vertebral disc ruptures or tears, the jelly-like substance inside may leak (herniate) and compress a nerve. This can cause symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and neck and shoulder pain that extends to the arms.

Health Conditions

An underlying medical condition may be the cause of your neck pain. Some of these health concerns include:

  • Arthritis – Most of us associate arthritis with the joints on the knees and hands, but remember that it can affect any joint in our body, including those in the neck.
  • Flu – Influenza commonly causes fever and aches and pains in the body; hence, it’s usual for people who have flu to report neck pain.
  • Meningitis – Viral or bacterial meningitis affects the tissues in the brain and spinal cord. This can cause severe stiff neck, which makes it difficult for the person to touch their chin to chest. Symptoms of meningitis usually occur suddenly; watch out for a headache, fever, and sometimes, vomiting.
  • Heart problems – Heart problems, including a heart attack, can cause referred neck pain.
  • Torticollis – Torticollis is a condition where there is severe muscle spasm or contraction in the neck. It typically causes the head to turn to one side. This health concern may be present at birth (congenital), caused by an injury, or by a particular disease.

Neck Pain Diagnosis

For a start, your doctor will conduct a health interview. This includes questions about your family history and symptoms. Afterwards, there will be a physical assessment to palpate your neck or turn your head carefully.

They may also recommend any, or a combination of, the following tests:

  • X-rays
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Scan

Besides those mentioned above, the doctor may also recommend less common tests such as a myelogram. This is a procedure where the healthcare provider; usually, a radiologist injects a contrast dye into the person’s back. The dye will then help to uncover the reason for pain during a CT or MRI scan.

Neck Pain Treatment

Depending on the cause of your neck pain, different treatment methods may be recommended. For instance, if your neck pain is caused by poor posture, taking over-the-counter pain medications, correcting your posture, and trying home remedies may ease the pain. However, neck pain relief may involve more complex strategies if you are hurt due to an accident or disease.

In general, there are three main ways for neck pain relief: medications, therapy, and surgery.

Medications

The most common go-to treatment for neck pain, even while still waiting for diagnostic test results, is to take medications. Depending on your condition, the doctor may prescribe you a pain reliever, muscle relaxant (for tight knots), or an anti-inflammatory drug if there is inflammation.

While some of these medications can be purchased over-the-counter, it’s still best to get your doctor’s approval for any medicine.

People who have conditions that trigger neck pain will most likely receive medications for that particular health concern, too.

Therapy

Another strategy to relieve neck pain is through therapy. Under this treatment option, your choices are as follows:

Rehabilitation Therapy

Frequently experience neck pain due to your posture or the nature of your work? If that’s the case then your doctor may recommend physiotherapy or occupational therapy.

After an initial assessment to understand the root cause of your neck pain, the physiotherapist will come up with a personalised care plan with suitable exercises and stretches to help relieve or prevent pain. They can also guide you on the proper ways to perform home remedies such as applying warm or cold compress. 

Meanwhile, an occupational therapist can teach you the proper posture and help you figure out alternate ways of performing the same task, so that it will be less strenuous on your neck and prevent future injuries.

If your neck pain is causing you significant discomfort, you can consider getting a house call doctor to drop by your home, or engage a home therapist.

Short-term Immobilization

If the doctor determines that you should temporarily immobilise your neck, they may give you a soft neck collar to wear for a few hours a day for up to two weeks. This therapy is often recommended to relieve pressure or hasten recovery after an injury.

Note: please do not decide to wear a collar on your own, as wrong or prolonged use of the collar may do more harm than good.

Traction

Applying traction using weights or pulleys to stretch your neck muscles can also give you pain relief. However, make sure to only do it under an expert’s supervision.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

TENS is another form of pain-relief therapy where an expert applies electrical impulses on the skin above the painful areas of your neck.

Surgery

Surgery is rarely an option for neck pain. However, the physician may recommend it for conditions like nerve problems and spinal cord compression, mostly if medications, therapy, and suggested home remedies are ineffective.

How to Relieve Neck Pain at Home

Are you experiencing neck pain at the moment? These doctor-approved home remedies may help to ease your pain and discomfort in the short-term:

Apply a Cold or Warm Compress

For the first 48 to 72 hours of your neck pain, apply a cold compress. Afterward, apply a warm compress. Remember to protect your skin by using a towel and don’t fall asleep with a cold or hot pack. If you are not fond of hot packs, consider taking warm showers instead, or soaking in a tub with warm water.

Do take note that this may not be suitable for everyone. The best form of treatment and remedy may differ depending on the types and causes of neck pain. Do discuss with your doctor to find out what is the most appropriate pain relief solution for you.

Massage

If your neck pain is due to muscle knots, a gentle massage may help to increase blood circulation and loosen the muscles, relieving pain and stiffness. Focus on the sore or tight areas in your neck, but stop immediately if the massage is painful or doesn’t feel right.

Rest

If you are currently involved in any activity that may potentially worsen your neck pain, take a break. Sports, lifting, and even emotional stress may be doing your neck more harm.

Know Your Limits

Pay attention and listen to your body. Whenever you are doing something, be it an exercise or a chore, consider if it will strain your neck. Avoid the activity if it is too strenuous.

Change Positions Frequently

Make it a habit to change your position frequently, especially when you are reading, watching TV, or sitting in front of your computer. And above all, don’t forget to assume good posture by maintaining a neutral spine.

Choose a firm mattress

A firm mattress that can adequately support your neck, shoulders, and back is an excellent way to relieve and prevent neck pain. If possible, try to sleep with just a few pillows or use a special neck-pillow. Sleeping on your tummy should be avoided as it twists or bends your neck muscles.

Perform Exercises for Neck Pain Relief

These exercises may also help to relieve neck pain:

  • Roll your shoulders. Move your shoulders up, roll them backward, then bring them down. Repeat for about 10 times.
  • Ear to shoulder. Stretch your neck muscles by bringing your ear to your shoulder for about 10 times on each side.
  • Squeeze shoulder blades. Another great exercise is to squeeze your shoulder blades together. You can do this by raising your palms at shoulder level, with your palms open and facing forward. Afterward, open up your shoulders by pushing your shoulder blades together and moving your arms backwards. Hold the position for about 10 seconds.
  • Push head backward. Start by placing both hands at the back of your head. Push your head back into your hands for about 30 seconds. If you are in the car, push your head into the headrest. The good thing about this stretch is that you can do it anywhere, anytime.

Take note that as with all physical activities, do exercise caution and stop immediately if you feel the pain worsening.

Neck Pain Prevention

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Here are some simple tips you can adopt in your daily life that can help to prevent neck pain:

Go for Regular Eye Checkups

Outdated eyeglasses and poor vision can cause you to lean forward because you cannot see or read properly, straining your neck muscles. 

Make Changes to Your Working Environment

Your computer should be at eye level, so adjust your desk or chair accordingly. Moreover, avoid answering calls with the phone between your ear and shoulder. Consider using headphones or the hands-free feature of your phone.

Don’t Smoke

Reports say that smoking increases your risk of developing neck pain. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you are a smoker, cut down and quit the habit. 

Avoid Carrying Heavy Bags 

Heavy bags with straps over your shoulders may strain your neck muscles and cause pain. 

Use Proper Techniques when Lifting Heavy Items

When you are lifting heavy items, remember to lift with your knees and not your back. This not only prevents neck pain but also reduces the risk of you hurting your back.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

As mentioned earlier, stress can tighten your neck muscles. If you are consistently under pressure or stress, it may help to practice relaxation techniques such as journaling, deep breathing exercises, and meditation.

While most neck pain cases are temporary and tend to get better with rest, over-the-counter pain medication and simple home remedies, you should monitor your conditions and consult a doctor if the symptoms don’t ease up. If the pain makes it a chore to travel or if you are facing mobility issues, you can have a doctor visit your home instead.

References
  1. Do you have a stiff neck? Try these simple remedies. (2020, February 25). Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-you-have-a-stiff-neck-try-these-simple-remedies/
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, September 24). The 7 faces of neck pain. Harvard Health. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/7-faces-of-neck-pain
  3. Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, September 26). 6 ways to ease neck pain. Harvard Health. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/6-ways-to-ease-neck-pain
  4. Myelogram test details. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diagnostics/4892-myelogram/test-details
  5. Neck pain – Symptoms and causes. (2020, July 31). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/neck-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20375581
  6. Neck pain – Causes, diagnosis and treatments. (n.d.). American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Neck-Pain
  7. Neck problems and injuries. (n.d.). University of Michigan | Michigan Medicine. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/necpn

About the Writer
Lorraine Bunag, R.N.
Lorraine is a registered nurse who spends most of her time writing informative articles on health and wellness. At the end of the day, she relaxes by reading a book or watching documentaries about unsolved mysteries.
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