It can be excruciating, but it’s rarely serious. Here’s what to do about your pain in the neck.
Suffering from a pain in your neck? Neck pain is a modern epidemic, due in part to sedentary lifestyles, and most people will experience it at some point in their life.
The good news is neck pain is easily treatable and rarely serious. We speak to Lyndsay Hirst from Your Pilates Physio about the most common neck pain causes and effective treatment options:
What causes neck pain?
Many things can trigger neck pain. ‘The most common cause of neck pain I see in my clinic is postural,’ says Hirst. ‘It probably accounts for 85 per cent of the cases I see. Postural neck pain will often be felt from the neck into the upper shoulder area, and is felt as an ache.’
Hirst says other causes of neck pain can include:
• Facet joint dysfunctions
This is usually felt very specifically over the facet joint and reproduced with movement and palpation of the facet joint.
• Discogenic pain
This can be very severe. However, most cases resolve within six to eight weeks.
• Degenerative conditions
Degenerative conditions such as cervical spondylosis are common.
• Whiplash injuries
These can vary in severity. Often, if there is an underlying neck condition present before a whiplash injury, the whiplash may exacerbate symptoms.
• Torticollis, or wry neck
This is an acute onset of neck pain and stiffness caused by the neck muscles going into spasm. It usually settles within a day or two.
• Thoracic outlet syndrome
This is a condition we occasionally see where someone presents with pain in the arm but that can also be felt in the neck, resulting in compression of nerves and/or blood vessels around the area of the first rib.
What does neck pain feel like?
Neck pain is general discomfort in the neck area and stiffness in the neck muscles. ‘Pain can be felt anywhere in the neck, into the shoulders and head, and even down the arms if there is nerve involvement,’ explains Hirst.
‘Often people will describe neck pain as quite a sickening pain, which can either be sharp, sore or more of an ache. The movement of the neck may be compromised and headaches can also commonly be attributed to neck pain.’
How can you ease neck pain?
If your neck is making you uncomfortable, it’s best to stay as active as possible. Try to go to work and keep up your normal everyday activities – bed rest isn’t necessary. Neck pain is rarely caused by a serious illness and will often disappear within a week.
Neck pain is rarely caused by a serious illness and will often disappear within a week.
‘Wheat bags are brilliant for neck pain – they are better than hot water bottles, because you can wrap them around your neck to ease discomfort,’ says Hirst.
‘Keep the neck moving to avoid stiffness and always be mindful of your posture,’ she adds. ‘Performing simple shoulder roll exercises and chin retraction exercises can also help. If you experience neck pain while at work, ask for an ergonomic assessment of your workstation – there are lots of great gadgets and devices that can help to reduce your risk of neck pain.’
Treating persistent neck pain
Acute neck pain should go away on its own after one or two days. However, if your neck pain persists, it would be wise to gain a medical opinion and treatment.
‘Manual therapy, acupuncture and exercise are all excellent treatments for neck pain if you struggle to ease the pain yourself with home remedies,’ says Hirst.
‘I would especially advise that you seek medical advice if you experience arm symptoms, pins and needles, speech difficulties, vision disturbances, black outs, drop attacks or headaches, to rule out other conditions.’
What medicines should I use for neck pain?
‘If the pain persists then try using ibuprofen tablets for a few days,’ says Ghelani. ‘Take one 400mg ibuprofen tablet three times a day and use a warm hot water bottle or heat patch to help treat muscular inflammation in the neck. Using an ibuprofen or diclofenac gel may also help. These can be used in combination with ibuprofen tablets.’
‘Stronger painkillers that are codeine based, such as co-codamol may be used if the neck pain is severe,’ she adds. ‘Your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant such as diazepam, for a short period if other painkillers are not effective.’
How long does neck pain usually last?
Recovery from neck pain depends on the underlying cause of the pain. The prognosis is generally good, provided the patient remains active and obtains the correct treatment without delay.
Weak neck muscles are more prone to problems, so an exercise programme to strengthen the neck is a good idea.
People with weak neck muscles are more prone to neck problems, so following an exercise programme to strengthen the neck is a good idea.
If your neck pain is related to a sedentary lifestyle and you spend long hours working at a desk, get your workplace assessed to ensure you maintain the best posture, take regular breaks and try to limit screen time.
Danger signs associated with neck pain
In some cases, neck pain may be a symptom of meningitis. If any of the the following symptoms occur, dial 999 or seek medical attention urgently:
- A rash develops that doesn’t fade when you press it with a glass or a finger.
- The patient feels ill or is running a fever, as well as feeling neck pain.
- It’s painful to bend forward and the patient can’t put their chin on their chest.
- Sensitivity to light.
- Neck pain is accompanied by severe headache or continuous vomiting.
- Neck pain is accompanied by severe back pain.
- Following a head injury the person is drowsy, confused or is vomiting.
- Neck pain is accompanied by headache.
- There’s pain behind one eye.
- Vision, hearing, taste or balance are affected.
- The muscle power in arms or legs is reduced.