It’s estimated that at least 20 percent of adults have experienced neck pain at some point in the last three months. While we’re quick to blame our phones and screens, this is only half the truth. Poor neck posture can exacerbate the issue as it places the joints in an uncomfortable and awkward position. But it’s more often than not an underlying issue that is at fault, from weakened neck muscles, to damage to the bone underneath. The musculature around the cervical portion of the spine is responsible for keeping our head on our shoulders.
As we live increasingly sedentary lifestyles, these muscles weaken, giving way for the joints to move out of place or catch on something, or for the muscles themselves to ache from the strain of poor posture. Not all neck pain can be explained by a tired neck, however. The neck is ultimately a delicate portion of the body, with a great many glands, nodes, nerves, bones, and muscles. Your neck pain may simply be the result of straining for too long, or it be the result of injury, disease, and more.
Types of Neck Pain
Pain in the neck differs depending on its origin. The most common types of neck pain are generally a stiff neck, caused by strained or tired muscles. Muscle pain or muscle spasms are the result of weakened or overstretched muscles. Taking pressure off the neck and making use of a variety of strengthening and mobility exercises can reduce and prevent recurring symptoms.
When the cause of the pain is mostly myofascial (i.e. the musculoskeletal soft tissue in the neck, including muscles, fascia, tendons), rest and recovery will often be the first line treatment. The pain should go away on its own, or with over-the-counter painkillers. When the muscles are overworked or tense, they may cause a pain around the back of the head (headache) that gets worse with neck motion.
Again, giving the neck some time to relax and take the tension off can help reduce symptoms. It’s the other causes of neck pain that can often be more severe. Pain caused by damage or disease in the bones of the cervical spine may need medical attention. Causes include injury and osteoarthritis, disc degeneration, or more rarely, hyperostosis (excess bone growth and hardening ligaments).
Another cause of neck pain could be a compressed or damaged nerve. Depending on the nature of the injury, medical attention may be critical. Damage or pressure on a nerve can be caused by damage or disease of the bone. It’s often impossible to tell without seeking help first. Another sign that your neck pain may be nerve related is pain shooting down other parts of the body, particularly the back, arm, and even the hand.
If your neck pain is minor but you have a history of injury and bone disease, it may still be a good idea to make an appointment with a doctor. In that case, you may be interested in knowing how effective medical treatment for neck pain can be when interacting with medical specialists remotely.
Outside of current circumstances, telemedicine is becoming an increasingly important tool for medical professionals tending to patients with a variety of pains, both acute and chronic. Patients don’t always have the ability to make their way to the office, and it isn’t always feasible to schedule a house visit. When a trip to the emergency room or nearest urgent care facility isn’t immediately warranted, telemedicine is often the next best bet.
Furthermore, telemedicine is a great way to do follow up care effectively after emergency treatment or a diagnostic visit. But how effective is telemedicine when it comes to neck pain? Research indicates that it’s very effective, especially compared to simply giving patients instructions and leaving them to their own devices, and found that the home-based telemedicine approach wasn’t just far more effective, but it also saw far greater adherence to the treatment program.
Only two percent of patients in the telemedicine group didn’t perform their exercise regimen, versus a full quarter of the control group. For patients where frequent visits to the doctor’s aren’t feasible, telemedicine makes for an effective alternative in the treatment of neck pain versus simply sending the patient home with some instructions.
Home Remedies and Exercises for Neck Pain
Simple remedies for most cases of neck pain include rest and ice, taking pressure off the neck (using a neck pillow or a declining sofa to gently decompress the neck), and over-the-counter painkillers. One way to combat neck pain and keep it from recurring is by strengthening and stretching muscles in the neck, including:
- The trapezius (a major muscle in the neck and upper back)
- The sternocleidomastoid (which runs from behind your ears down to the top of your collarbone)
- Scalene muscles
To prevent a recurring injury, it’s typically best to train the neck without excessive cervical flexion – i.e., utilizing exercises that require you to hold your head in place against an opposing force, rather than moving it with resistance. Do not run an exercise program for your neck without first consulting your physician, especially if you’ve had a prior injury.
Depending on where you were injured and how, certain exercises that might help strengthen the neck for some people may aggravate an injury in your case. Some examples of exercises your doctor may recommend include:
Simply moving the neck through its full range of motion without resistance can be a solid workout, especially after a long recovery. These exercises include looking up and down, left, and right, doing slow rotations of the neck, and tilting the neck from one side to the other (ear to shoulder).
Press against the top of your head with your hand and try to keep your neck straight, repeating the exercise from behind, from the sides, and from in front.
Lying on your stomach, try to slowly raise your chin off the ground without lifting your shoulders, chest, and stomach up.
More advanced exercises move through a range of motion with resistance in the form of hanging weight and resistance bands, but this type of neck training may only be needed for certain occupations where neck injuries and pain are a common occupational hazard (including pilots and professional contact athletes).
Not All Neck Pain Is Equal
Some neck pain is more severe than other neck pain. If your pain is shooting down into your arms, is debilitating and impeding your function, is so severe than you can barely move your head, or has been lasting several days/weeks, it’s important that you seek immediate medical attention. This is especially important if your neck pain is coupled with symptoms including fever, nausea, or severe headaches. Otherwise, if your neck has been stiff or uncomfortable for a while, consider making an appointment with your doctor or physician.