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Neck pain or spasms - self care

Pain - neck - self-care; Neck stiffness - self-care; Cervicalgia - self-care; Whiplash - self-care

You have been diagnosed with neck pain. Your symptoms may be caused by muscle strains or spasms, arthritis in your spine, a bulging disc, or narrowed openings for your spinal nerves or spinal cord.

Pain Relief

You can use one or more of these methods to help reduce neck pain:

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then use heat.
  • Apply heat using warm showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad.
  • To prevent injuring your skin, do not fall asleep with a heating pad or ice bag in place.
  • Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
  • Try sleeping on a firm mattress with a pillow that supports your neck. You may want to get a special neck pillow. You can find them at some pharmacies or retail stores.

Ask your health care provider about using a soft neck collar to relieve discomfort.

  • Only use the collar for 2 to 4 days at most.
  • Using a collar for longer can make your neck muscles weaker. Take it off from time to time to allow the muscles to get stronger.

Acupuncture also may help relieve neck pain.

Activity Changes

To help relieve neck pain, you may have to reduce your activities. However, doctors do not recommend bed rest. You should try to stay as active as you can without making the pain worse.

These tips can help you stay active with neck pain.

  • Stop normal physical activity for only the first few days. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce swelling (inflammation) in the area of the pain.
  • Do not do activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your neck or back for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins.
  • If you are unable to move your head around very easily, you may need to avoid driving.

After 2 to 3 weeks, slowly begin to exercise again. Your health care provider may refer you to a physical therapist. Your physical therapist can teach you which exercises are right for you and when to start.

You may need to stop or ease back on the following exercises during recovery, unless your doctor or physical therapist says it is OK:

  • Jogging
  • Contact sports
  • Racquet sports
  • Golf
  • Dancing
  • Weight lifting
  • Leg lifts when lying on your stomach
  • Sit-ups

Stretches and Exercises

As part of physical therapy, you may receive massage and stretching exercises along with exercises to strengthen your neck. Exercise can help you:

  • Improve your posture
  • Strengthen your neck and improve flexibility

A complete exercise program should include:

  • Stretching and strength training. Follow the instructions of your doctor or physical therapist.
  • Aerobic exercise. This may involve walking, riding a stationary bicycle, or swimming. These activities can help improve blood flow to your muscles and promote healing. They also strengthen muscles in your stomach, neck, and back.

Stretching and strengthening exercises are important in the long run. Keep in mind that starting these exercises too soon after an injury can make your pain worse. Strengthening the muscles in your upper back can ease the stress on your neck.

Your physical therapist can help you determine when to begin neck stretching and strengthening exercises and how to do them.

Preventing Neck Pain

If you work at a computer or a desk most of the day:

  • Stretch your neck every hour or so.
  • Use a headset when on the telephone, especially if answering or using the phone is a main part of your job.
  • When reading or typing from documents at your desk, place them in a holder at eye level.
  • When sitting, make sure that your chair has a straight back with an adjustable seat and back, armrests, and a swivel seat.

Other measures to help prevent neck pain include:

  • Avoid standing for long periods. If you must stand for your work, place a stool by your feet. Alternate resting each foot on the stool.
  • Do not wear high heels. Wear shoes that have cushioned soles when walking.
  • If you drive long-distance, stop and walk around every hour. Do not lift heavy objects just after a long ride.
  • Make sure you have a firm mattress and supportive pillow.
  • Learn to relax. Try methods such as yoga, tai chi, or massage.

Chronic Neck Pain

For some, neck pain does not go away and becomes a long-lasting (chronic) problem.

Managing chronic pain means finding ways to make your pain tolerable so you can live your life.

Unwanted feelings, such as frustration, resentment, and stress, are often a result of chronic pain. These feelings and emotions can worsen your neck pain.

Ask your health care provider about prescribing medicines to help you manage your chronic pain. Some with ongoing neck pain take narcotics to control the pain. It is best if only one health care provider is prescribing your narcotic pain medicines.

If you have chronic neck pain, ask your health care provider about a referral to a:

  • Rheumatologist (an expert in arthritis and joint disease)
  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist (can help people regain body functions they lost due to medical conditions or injury)
  • Neurosurgeon
  • Mental health provider

When to Call the Doctor

Call your provider if:

  • Symptoms do not go away in 1 week with self-care
  • You have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand
  • Your neck pain was caused by a fall, blow, or injury, if you cannot move your arm or hand, have someone call 911
  • The pain gets worse when you lie down or wakes you up at night
  • Your pain is so severe that you cannot get comfortable
  • You lose control over urination or bowel movements
  • You have trouble walking and balancing

References

Lemmon R, Leonard J. Neck and back pain. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 31.

Ronthal M. Arm and neck pain. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 31.

  • Neck pain

    Neck pain

    Animation

  •  

    Neck pain - Animation

    Your neck is sore. It hurts to move your head. Are you sleeping wrong, is it stress, or a result of climbing that ladder to clean your gutters? Let's get to the bottom of those real pains in your neck. When your neck is sore, you may have trouble moving it, especially to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck. If neck pain involves nerves, such as a muscle spasm pinching on a nerve or a slipped disk pressing on a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, hand, or elsewhere. A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Usually, everyday activities are to blame. Such activities include bending over a desk for hours hunching in place, having poor posture while watching TV or reading, placing your computer monitor too high or too low, sleeping in an uncomfortable position, or twisting and turning your neck in a jarring manner while exercising. Usually, you can treat minor neck pain at home. Simple posture improvements are a great place to start, sitting straight with shoulders held back, driving with arms on armrests, and avoiding carrying shoulder bags. Take breaks when sitting in front of video displays or holding a telephone. For pain, you might try over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil or Tylenol. And low level laser therapy can be very effective. Physical therapy can be great for treating or preventing the recurrence of neck pain. Slow range of motion exercises, moving your head up and down, side to side from ear to ear, can gently stretch your neck muscles. Applying heat beforehand may help. Good sleep position is especially important with the head aligned with the body. You can try sleeping with a special neck pillow for that. You may want to see a doctor if your symptoms linger for longer than a week of self care, or if you have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand, or if your pain was caused by a fall, blow, or injury. If the pain is due to a muscle spasm or a pinched nerve, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant or a tricyclic antidepressant, and possibly a more powerful pain reliever than you were taking at home. You may be referred to a neurologist if he suspects any nerve damage in your neck. You can help prevent neck pain or keep it from coming back in many ways. Use relaxation techniques and regular exercise to prevent unwanted stress and tension to your neck muscles. Learn stretching exercises for your neck and upper body, stretch every day, before and especially after exercise. Use good posture, especially if you sit at a desk all day, keep your back supported, adjust your computer monitor to eye level, so you don't have to continually look up or down. Talk to your doctor if pain persists, you do not want to go through life with a real pain in the neck.

  • Whiplash

    Whiplash - illustration

    The pain of whiplash may not appear right away after an accident, but sometimes may take hours to weeks to develop. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, pain or stiffness in the neck, jaw, shoulders, or arms.

    Whiplash

    illustration

  • Location of whiplash pain

    Location of whiplash pain - illustration

    Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck. Whiplash injury strains the muscles and ligaments of the neck beyond their normal range of motion. There is often pain and stiffness in the neck for the first few days following a whiplash injury. The pain can also be felt in the surrounding muscle groups in the head, chest, shoulders, and arms.

    Location of whiplash pain

    illustration

  • Neck pain

    Neck pain

    Animation

  •  

    Neck pain - Animation

    Your neck is sore. It hurts to move your head. Are you sleeping wrong, is it stress, or a result of climbing that ladder to clean your gutters? Let's get to the bottom of those real pains in your neck. When your neck is sore, you may have trouble moving it, especially to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck. If neck pain involves nerves, such as a muscle spasm pinching on a nerve or a slipped disk pressing on a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, hand, or elsewhere. A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Usually, everyday activities are to blame. Such activities include bending over a desk for hours hunching in place, having poor posture while watching TV or reading, placing your computer monitor too high or too low, sleeping in an uncomfortable position, or twisting and turning your neck in a jarring manner while exercising. Usually, you can treat minor neck pain at home. Simple posture improvements are a great place to start, sitting straight with shoulders held back, driving with arms on armrests, and avoiding carrying shoulder bags. Take breaks when sitting in front of video displays or holding a telephone. For pain, you might try over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil or Tylenol. And low level laser therapy can be very effective. Physical therapy can be great for treating or preventing the recurrence of neck pain. Slow range of motion exercises, moving your head up and down, side to side from ear to ear, can gently stretch your neck muscles. Applying heat beforehand may help. Good sleep position is especially important with the head aligned with the body. You can try sleeping with a special neck pillow for that. You may want to see a doctor if your symptoms linger for longer than a week of self care, or if you have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand, or if your pain was caused by a fall, blow, or injury. If the pain is due to a muscle spasm or a pinched nerve, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant or a tricyclic antidepressant, and possibly a more powerful pain reliever than you were taking at home. You may be referred to a neurologist if he suspects any nerve damage in your neck. You can help prevent neck pain or keep it from coming back in many ways. Use relaxation techniques and regular exercise to prevent unwanted stress and tension to your neck muscles. Learn stretching exercises for your neck and upper body, stretch every day, before and especially after exercise. Use good posture, especially if you sit at a desk all day, keep your back supported, adjust your computer monitor to eye level, so you don't have to continually look up or down. Talk to your doctor if pain persists, you do not want to go through life with a real pain in the neck.

  • Whiplash

    Whiplash - illustration

    The pain of whiplash may not appear right away after an accident, but sometimes may take hours to weeks to develop. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, pain or stiffness in the neck, jaw, shoulders, or arms.

    Whiplash

    illustration

  • Location of whiplash pain

    Location of whiplash pain - illustration

    Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck. Whiplash injury strains the muscles and ligaments of the neck beyond their normal range of motion. There is often pain and stiffness in the neck for the first few days following a whiplash injury. The pain can also be felt in the surrounding muscle groups in the head, chest, shoulders, and arms.

    Location of whiplash pain

    illustration

A Closer Look

 

Self Care

 

Review Date: 7/11/2019

Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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