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What to Do About a Pain in the Neck

The neck is the most flexible part of the spine, but because it isn’t well-protected by muscles, it’s also easy to injure.

Neck pain can result from many different causes--from arthritis to inflammatory disease. Causes of neck pain and problems may include the following:

  • Injury (damage to the muscles, tendons, and/or ligaments)

  • Stress

  • Herniated cervical disk

  • Arthritis (i.e., osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis)

  • Congenital abnormalities of the vertebrae and bones

  • Tumors

Self-care ideas

If your neck pain is caused by a mild injury or a chronic condition, the following self-care suggestions from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons can provide relief:

  • Massage. Ask a friend or therapist to gently massage the area.

  • Apply cold. Apply an ice pack to a sore neck for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day. A bag of frozen peas or corn makes a great cold pack. Wrap the frozen bag in a towel so you aren't putting the cold object directly on your skin.

  • Add heat. A warm shower, heating pad or moist warm towel can help loosen sore, tight muscles.

  • Take an over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medication.

  • Stretch. Reduce stiffness and soreness and gain motion and strength by moving your neck gently.

Prevent pain

Neck pain can often be prevented with the following adjustments to the way you work and rest:

  • Consider sleeping in a different position, getting a new mattress and box spring or putting a 3/4-inch plywood board between the mattress and box spring for extra support if you often wake up with a sore neck.

  • Choose a pillow that allows your head to rest comfortably centered between your shoulders if you sleep on your side. If you sleep on your back, choose a pillow that doesn’t push your chin toward your chest.

  • Take time out to relax by exercising and doing things you enjoy if stress makes your neck tense.

  • Improve your posture. An easy way to improve your posture is to focus on keeping the natural curve in the lower back. When you do this, the rest of the spine tends to pull into place, straightening your shoulders, as well.

  • Improve your work area. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, use a telephone headset. Hold reading materials and place computer screens at eye level; don’t bend over your work. When typing, keep your elbows, hips and knees at a 90-degree angle, and make sure you have good low back support.

Call your health care provider if pain persists or you have numbness or tingling. Call 911 if you or another person has any severe trauma or blow to the head or neck.