Neck Pain and Stiffness

Neck pain and stiffness are very most common conditions and surgery is typically not required. So what causes neck pain, what are some of the mainstay non-surgical treatment options and when should one see a doctor or a spine specialist?

What causes neck pain and stiffness?
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Stiffness, as in loss of range of motion, is usually accompanied by pain in the neck that might travel to the shoulders or back of the head. This is very common and most of the time, it is coming from the muscles.

The muscles of your neck support your 15-to-20-pound head throughout the day and night. They are susceptible to strain and sprain, particularly if you engage in activities that your body is not used to. The most common complaint is pain after a workout or athletic activity, unusual bending/stooping lifting tasks, and carrying heavy weights. The list of activities is endless.

Stress is another common source of pain. Keeping one’s head and neck in a constant position for many hours a day, especially looking down at a cell phone or a computer, is the most common culprit because looking down dramatically increases the stress on your spine, forcing the muscles to work harder.

What are some non-surgical treatment options for neck pain? Are there any at-home exercises or stretches that can help?

Most neck stiffness resolves by itself within weeks. Simple remedies such as a hot shower, gentle range of motion exercises, ice packs and stretching will help. Anti-inflammatory medication such as Advil (400-800 mg three times daily), Aleve (375 mg twice daily) or Tylenol (325g mg 4 times daily) are common, safe solutions. We doctors recommend taking these medicines for 2-3 weeks at a time and then discontinuing.

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Simple neck stretches should be performed daily for about 30 minutes, preferably twice a day. These involve range of motion and stretching. An example is touching your chin to your chest or looking up at the ceiling touching your chin to either your right or left shoulder. Touching an ear to the left and right shoulder if possible is also another good stretch.

Placing the hands at eye level and then pulling them behind one’s head while looking up at the ceiling is another good stretch. Holding the elbows behind the back and trying to press them together helps too. All of these can be done for a slow 10-count and repeated ten times. Click the link to download.

Heat relaxes muscles and ice decreases inflammation. These can be used interchangeably depending on an individual’s response. Icy hot and other topicals are merely aspirin-like compounds that cause a little irritation in the skin with a perception of heat, and there is some local absorption of the salicylic acid which helps.

When should a patient see a doctor to treat neck pain?

Most neck stiffness resolves by itself, but if it persists for more than four weeks without significant improvement, then seeing your doctor is a good idea. Schedule an appointment with a spine specialist if the pain is severe, radiates the upper extremities, or is associated with numbness or tingling in the hands.

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Simple solutions such as getting enough sleep, de-stressing, exercising, and stretching are all helpful in both helping with pain and preventing future episodes. Having a good sleep and ergonomic work environment is essential. I highly recommend raising the computer or phone screens as close to the eye level as possible. Your daily habits and activities add up, so pay attention to your posture, repetitive activities, and excessive work or stress.