Neck pain is among the most common complaints people have, and its incidence has increased over time. The changes in our lifestyles, including the kind of jobs we usually have and the way we entertain ourselves, increase our risk of developing neck stiffness and experiencing neck pain. Muscular tension and postural problems are among the main causes of neck pain.
Some disorders and illnesses can cause neck pain too, but in the vast majority of cases, chronic neck pain is a matter of bad posture and/or stress. If you experience chronic neck pain, you should consult a doctor or physical therapist, and you might need an X-ray of your cervical vertebrae to make sure there is no deeper cause for it. In the meantime, or in case you just experience occasional or mild neck pain and you want to feel better, here are some tips for quickly relieving your pain.
1. Apply heat
Neck pain is very commonly caused by muscular tension. The muscles don’t relax properly and they conserve a constant state of contraction during the day, which makes it more difficult to move your head and neck, and could make you feel pain.
This tension might be originated in a poor posture that forces your muscles to become more tense than needed; also, nervous tension or stress might be behind it, because when your thoughts and emotions are tense, your body responds with physical tension that echoes your worries and fears.
The number one method for relieving muscular tension and contractures is to apply heat. You can get an electric pillow or soak a towel in hot water. Hot immersion baths are excellent because water can reach all-around your neck, but long hot showers also help. Stand for a few minutes under the hot water, and let the temperature of the shower relax your muscles.
2. Stretch your neck
When muscles are contracted, they become shorter and thicker; when they relax, they are longer and thinner. This is natural and happens all the time in our bodies when we move or keep a certain posture. However, excessive tension and contraction will make your muscles stay shorter than they usually are in a resting position, and as a result you will feel pain and your movements will be more restrained.
In order to relieve pain caused by a stiff neck, you can try some stretches a few times a day, especially if you spend hours looking down or forcing your neck in any other way. Some slow movements that you can do include tilting your head sideways and forwards – remember not to make circular movements because you might force your muscles – and moving your ear close to your shoulders. Gently pulling your head to one side and your shoulder to the other will do as well.
3. Do shoulder rolls
The tension in the muscles of your neck can extend down to your shoulders because there are muscular groups that connect your head to your collarbone, shoulder joint and shoulder blades. Inversely, the tension that is originated in your shoulders can go up to your neck and cause pain. When muscular groups become too tense – which you can feel like a hard bump on your flesh – they contract and become shorter.
Since muscles are connected with one another, a contracture can actually overstretch muscles around it and cause pain. If your neck pain is connected to a shoulder contracture, doing shoulder rolls and shrugs can release the tension in your shoulder and relieve your neck as a chain effect. Do shoulder rolls back and forth and shrug 10 to 12 times in a row to release tension. Repeat this short exercise 3 to 4 times a day for better results.
4. Do short movements
Neck stiffness is a natural reaction of the body to prevent movements or efforts that could make the pain worse. However, releasing the stiffness can actually make the pain better because you make the muscles relax and recover. Short and repetitive movements are recommendable. Rotate your neck and move it in all angles to the sides and the front. Remember to do it softly and slowly, so as not to add more tension to your muscles instead of releasing it.
Look to the left and to the right, rotate your head, point with your chin to your shoulders, nod and make a pendulum with your chin as your head falls forward. Your muscles will relax even more if you breathe deeply and exhale every time you feel that your muscles are stretching. Repeat these movements a few times a day to release pain and prevent stiffness.
5. Improve your posture
Bad posture is among the main causes of neck pain, so in order to solve the problem at its source, you need to make sure you don’t have poor positions during the day. Many of our daily activities involve looking down for a long time, for example, if we work at a desk, or use a computer or a smartphone.
Also, the wrong height of our pillow or a sunken mattress when we sleep might cause our neck to rest in the wrong position, displacing our disks and causing pain. The ideal posture for our spine is straight but relaxed, with proper rest if necessary.
If you work on a computer, make sure the monitor is at the same height as your eyes, so you don’t have to look down. Looking down for too long overstretches the muscles of the back of your neck and can weaken them; weak muscles often cause pain, contractures, and stiffness.
6. Get neck massages
Deep tissue massages are a great way to relieve muscular contractures, so you can use them to relieve your neck pain if it is caused by muscular tension. You can use self-massaging techniques or ask for someone else to massage your neck. Self-massage techniques include letting your head fall to the side and hit the side of your neck with your fist, moving from the shoulder to the ear and back.
Pressure with your fingertips also works, and sweeping the muscles parallel and perpendicular to their length help release the tension. You can also use small balls, like a golf ball or Chinese massage spheres, and roll them on your neck. If the pain or stiffness makes it difficult for you to move, ask someone else to perform the massage for you. Hiring a professional is also a good option, but in many cases you can provide relief to yourself with self massages.
7. Use acupuncture
Acupuncture has been used for literally thousands of years in the far east as a treatment for pain and other health problems, and so far it has proven to be one of the best alternative techniques for pain relief and pain management. It doesn’t work in all cases, but if you haven’t tried it yet, then you should give it a go.
Some people are afraid of acupuncture because they believe that needles hurt, and imagine it as some sort of torture session, but as a matter of fact, the needles are so thin that you barely feel them, and the results can be very good depending on the case. Find a professional acupuncturist and give this ancient technique a go.
No negative side effects have been reported, and many people state that acupuncture has helped them with their pain, in some cases even relieving it completely.
8. Take painkillers
This seems like a no brainer. Taking pain medication can help relieve your discomfort, and is especially advisable in cases of acute pain. Off the counter painkillers should be enough to relieve your pain, unless your neck condition is too severe, in which case you should go to a doctor to get a stronger prescription, as well as get tested to see what the underlying problem is and how to solve it.
Remember, however, that painkillers only provide short term relief and definitively do not fix the problem that is making you hurt in the first place, unlike other tips on this list such as massages and hot water. If you have a long term or chronic neck problem, make sure to take a combined approach using painkillers as well as taking other measures to handle your situation. Regular painkillers like ibuprofen will relieve your pain, and also help reduce the inflammation of your muscles.
9. Improve your sleeping position
When you sleep, you spend literally hours, often uninterrupted, on a certain position. If the position is forcing or twisting your neck, it will gradually tense your muscles and even displace your neck bones. Your intervertebral disks will be under excessive pressure and might move from their place, pushing against tissue like muscles or ligaments or even nerves. The result can be very painful, and also affect negatively your posture or even your blood flow to your head.
The ideal sleeping position is belly up, but if your pillow is right you can sleep sideways with no negative effect on your neck. Sleeping belly down is often discouraged because it twists your neck and can make it hurt in time. Get a good pillow with the right thickness and make sure your mattress isn’t too sunk. Some mild stretching before going to bed also helps you have a more relaxed sleeping position.
10. Move normally – if you can
As stated before, neck stiffness can be a natural defense of your body. Your brain detects that there is something wrong with your neck, probably a displaced disk or a contractured muscle, and sends neural signals to all the muscles in the area to prevent more movement that could make the situation worse.
Muscular tension could add up to the stiffness, and the result in some cases is that it will be difficult – sometimes impossible – for you to perform certain movements with your neck. However, the mobility that you still have, you should use.
Moving your neck as normally as possible helps release tension and can even push your disks and ligaments back into place eventually. Don’t stop moving because of the discomfort, unless the pain is too hard to bear; you will actually be helping relieve the pain and you’ll feel better after a while.