Neck pain is fairly common, but can appear for many different reasons. This article will take a brief look at the most common causes of neck pain and ways to treat and prevent this problem.

Neck pain is  not usually something to be worried about, as it it rarely a sign of a serious illness. It can be caused by sleeping in a bad position, holding the neck still for a long period of time (this can happen when sitting in front of a computer) or putting excessive strain on the neck muscles due to bad posture. Stress and anxiety can also cause the muscles in the neck to tense up leading to neck pain.

More causes:

Muscle injury: A twisted or locked neck is usually caused by bad posture or by sleeping in a bad position and without neck support. Muscle injury can also be caused by carrying heavy bags or other objects with just one arm.

Wear and tear: Neck pain can be caused by arthritis in the bones and joints of the neck. This is something which can occur naturally with age, and although it does not always cause symptoms it can lead to neck stiffness.

Nerve pressure: Nerves located close to the neck can get squashed and may cause pain which radiates from the arms. Pins and needles and numbness in the hands can also be caused by pressure on the nerve. 

Whiplash: When the head is suddenly jerked forward, backwards or sideways, it can cause an injury to the tendons and ligaments in the neck. Whiplash is common in road traffic accidents and can cause headaches and reduced and painful movements in the neck.

Pinched nerve: A pinched nerve is more common in older people, and is usually caused by the discs of the spine pressing on a nearby nerve.

More serious conditions: Neck pain can be a sign of a more serious condition. The things to look out for are: a lack of co-ordination, loss of bladder control, fever, sudden weight loss or problems with walking.

Treatment:

Control the pain: It's important to keep active and carry on as normal. If the pain is interfering with your daily activities, it's important to control it by taking painkillers or by using a pain relieving gel. 

Heat and cold: Using a hot compress or a heat pack can help reduce the pain and muscle spasm. A cold pack can also bring relief and can reduce any inflammation.

Use proper head support: Try sleeping on a low firm pillow. Using many pillows may feel comfortable, but it can force the neck to bend unnaturally.

Maintain a good posture: A bad posture can make the neck pain worse. Remember to check your posture regularly.

Exercise: Simple neck exercises such as tilting your head up and down and from side to side whilst tensing your neck muscles, will strengthen the neck muscles and improve mobility.

Massage the affected area: Massage has been proven to help with neck pain. Try massaging your neck at home or see a massage therapist. A study found that a 60 min massage 2-3 times per week was the most effective time and frequency for treating this type of muscle pain (1).

Speak to your GP: If you are at all concerned about your neck pain or if it persists and increases in strength, it's important to see your GP. Neck pain can in some cases be a symptom of a more serious condition.

Prevention:

Posture: Maintaining a good posture is one of the most effective ways to avoid neck pain. This applies to how you sit at a desk, how you stand and how you carry yourself.

Move: Try not to sit for long periods of time or to keep your neck in the same position for extended periods of time. Do this by taking regular breaks from what you are doing.

Minimise stress: Stress can cause us to tense up the muscles in the neck. Use relaxation techniques which suit you to overcome stress.

Sleep on your back: Sleeping on your front will tilt your head to the side, which can cause neck stiffness and pain. Whenever possible, sleep with your head in line with your body.

Use one pillow: Using too many pillow will force your neck into an unnatural position. The ideal sleeping position is with your head level with your body.

Sleep on a firm mattress: A soft mattress can make your neck bend while asleep, straining the muscles in the neck.

 

1. Karen J. Sherman, Andrea J. Cook, Robert D. Wellman, Rene J. Hawkes, Janet R. Kahn, Richard A. Deyo, and Daniel C. Cherkin. Five-Week Outcomes From a Dosing Trial of Therapeutic Massage for Chronic Neck Pain. Ann Fam Med March/April 2014 vol. 12 no. 2 112-120. doi: 10.1370/afm.1602

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