Treating Chronic Neck Pain

By

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN

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Neck pain

Chronic neck pain is the third most commonly reported type of chronic pain in the U.S. and is one of the most common physical complaints around the world. The pain can be annoying or it can be debilitating—but when you’re experiencing it, chances are it’s pretty much all you can think about.


Causes of Chronic Neck Pain

Your neck can be injured easily because it’s so exposed. Because of this, there are many factors that could cause chronic neck pain. It could be the result of a sudden injury or trauma to the neck or spine, or it could be caused by a constant irritation to your neck, shoulders or upper back. It also could be triggered by certain types of illnesses. Some of the most common causes of chronic neck pain include:

  • Bad sleeping position

  • Bad posture when using a computer

  • Slouching when using a smartphone or tablet

  • Holding your phone between your shoulder and chin while talking

  • Stress

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Disk deterioration in the spine

  • Injury or trauma, like whiplash

Treatment for Your Chronic Neck Pain

Treatment for chronic neck pain varies depending on the cause. Some people can manage with some TLC and lifestyle changes, while others may need advanced treatment, such as surgery. Here are some treatment options that are used to treat chronic neck pain:

  • Rest your neck. Avoid activities that put strain on your neck, like some sports and physical activities.

  • Apply ice and/or heat. Ice reduces swelling, while heat helps relieve muscle stiffness. Ice is generally recommended within 24 hours of an injury occurring, but if your chronic neck pain is caused by inflammation in the discs, perhaps caused by arthritis, ice may be helpful when the pain starts to get worse. Some people use only ice, others only heat, while some alternate ice and heat, both for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.

  • Over-the-counter transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit, or TENS. A TENS unit is a non-invasive, non-medicinal treatment that uses mild electric currents to interrupt the pain messages sent to your brain. Be sure to check with your doctor before treating yourself with a TENS unit at home.

  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers: To reduce swelling (inflammation) and/or pain.

  • Immobilization: A brace to keep your head steady, keeping the pressure off your neck.

  • Physical therapy/exercises: Physical therapy may help you stretch your neck and build up strength in your neck and shoulders. A physical therapist can also assess your posture, to determine if this is causing your chronic neck pain, and give you exercises to help improve the way you sit and stand.

  • Relaxation exercises. If chronic stress is leading to pain in your neck, relaxation exercises, such as meditation, may help you manage your stress levels so your neck and upper back muscles don’t tighten up.

  • Steroid injections: If your chronic neck pain is caused by arthritis, your doctor may recommend you receive steroid injections into the joints in your neck, to relieve inflammation.

  • Surgery: A last resort, surgery procedure may be recommended if a disc in your neck is pinching a nerve or the discs are compressed together, causing the pain.

Preventing Chronic Neck Pain

It does seem more often that older folks get some sort of chronic neck pain, but it’s not inevitable. You may be able to reduce your risk of neck pain by taking some simple steps, such as:

  • Checking your posture, especially when working in front of a computer or using a smartphone or tablet.

  • Taking frequent breaks if you work at a computer, stretch, and move your neck around to loosen the muscles.

  • Exercising regularly.

  • Managing your stress levels.

  • Not carrying heavy purses or bags on one shoulder.

  • Investing in a good pillow that supports your head in a comfortable position.

  • Stopping smoking if you do. Smoking increases the risk of neck pain.

Chronic neck pain isn’t always avoidable, but your lifestyle and habits may contribute to pain if you’re not careful. Take care of your neck and if you do experience pain, speak with your doctor or physical therapist for advice on how to best manage it.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 6, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Fejer R, Kyvik KO, Hartvigsen J. The prevalence of neck pain in the world population: a systematic critical review of the literature. European Spine Journal. 2006;15(6):834-848. doi:10.1007/s00586-004-0864-4.
  2. Neck Pain. Stanford Health Care. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/back-neck-and-spine/neck-pain.html
  3. Chronic Neck Pain. American Osteopathic Association. http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/pain/Pages/chronic-neck-pain.aspx
  4. Neck Pain. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/neck-pain/basics/definition/con-20028772
  5. What Can Physical Therapy Do For Your Back & Neck Pain. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_your_back_and_neck/hic_What_Can_Physical_Therapy_Do_For_Your_Back_and_Neck_Pain
  6. Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck). OrthoInfo. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00369

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