Treatment Options for Neck Pain
The neck is an extremely sensitive part of the body. It is a delicate structure made up of seven vertebrae with small discs wedged in between, and these surround and protect the spinal cord. There are numerous small muscle groups, bones and nerve pathways running through the neck, and it doesn’t take much to aggravate them. Any disruption or injury can lead to pain and discomfort on many different levels, ranging from mild and dull to sharp and severe. In this article we’ll look at the most common causes of neck pain, and the treatment options that are available to you.
Causes and Treatment Options for Neck Pain
Muscular strains in the neck are a fairly common occurrence, especially in athletes.
If a particular muscle or connective tissue is stretched beyond it’s normal range of motion due to excessive rotation, flexion or extension, a tear or partial tear can occur in the muscle fibres, leading to pain and stiffness.
As explained by the guys at the Physio Room, injuries can vary significantly in severity:
- GRADE 1 STRAIN – There is damage to individual muscle fibres (less than 5% of fibres). This is a mild strain which requires 2 to 3 weeks rest.
- GRADE 2 STRAIN – There is more extensive damage, with more muscle fibres involved, but the muscle is not completely ruptured. The rest period required is usually between 3 and 6 weeks.
- GRADE 3 STRAIN – This is a complete rupture of a muscle. In a sports person this will usually require surgery to repair the muscle. The rehabilitation time is around 3 months.
It is always best to consult a medical professional as soon as possible if you think you have strained a muscle in your neck. There are however a few things that you can do yourself to reduce pain and speed up recovery:
The RICE recovery protocol is something that you should aim to incorporate straight after the injury has occurred, if possible.
It involves resting the area, icing it, applying compression and elevating it above the heart. The aim of the RICE protocol is to bring down inflammation and prevent further damage to the muscle tissue. If applied soon enough, it may speed up recovery and reduce the likelihood of the injury progressing further.
Depending on the severity of the injury, it may require short-term immobilisation of the neck using a neck collar or brace. Your doctor or physiotherapist will advise you as to whether or not this is necessary.
3. Light Movement
Patients are generally encouraged to try to move the injured area if the injury is not severe and there is no other structural damage. Elongating the fibres helps to stretch out scar tissue and prevent mobility issues in the future.
Gentle movements such as moving the head from side to side, up and down, as well as forwards and back will help to maintain mobility.
As the guys over at Breaking Muscle point out, soaking in Epsom Salt can be very helpful for the release of muscle aches and pain. The magnesium in the salt causes a chemical reaction that helps the muscle to relax properly. Simply add a cup or two to a warm bath and soak for 15-20 minutes to feel the benefits.
Acupuncture has long been used in the East as a treatment for various ailments, including muscular strains and neck pain. The West seems to be catching up, and recent studies have noted that acupuncture may be one of the best neck pain treatments available.
If you do choose to give it a try, be sure to find a qualified practitioner, and expect to wait around 4-5 sessions before you see any results.
Pain relief medications and anti-inflammatory drugs can help to ease pain if it becomes too intense, but you should keep in mind that they are not a solution to the problem. Medications like these often just mask the symptoms, and can have a number of unwanted side effects, so ensure that you proceed with caution.
Subluxation probably isn’t a term you’ve heard all that often. As the people over E-Chiropractic explain:
“In simplest terms, a subluxation is when one or more of the bones of your spine (vertebrae) move out of position and create pressure on, or irritate spinal nerves. Spinal nerves are the nerves that come out from between each of the bones in your spine. This pressure or irritation on the nerves then causes those nerves to malfunction and interfere with the signals traveling over those nerves.”
A subluxation in the neck can occur due to an acute injury, but can also be a result of prolonged stress or posture issues.
If you’re experiencing any kind of neck pain or problems with the spine, it may be worth paying a visit to a qualified chiropractor.
Chiropractors are medical professionals that have been trained to detect subluxations by assessing your range of motion, feeling along the spine, and sometimes even by using x-rays.
They then apply specific chiropractic adjustments to clear the subluxation and put the bone back into place. The adjustment is often accompanied by a large pop or cracking sound, but is typically pain free.
When the spine is back in it’s proper alignment, the nerve pathways are able to flow freely again and neck pain usually dissipates.
As well as putting the vertebra back into place, it is also important to address any muscular imbalances that may have occurred from the subluxation, or due to…
Modern living does not always promote a healthy posture.
Our bodies are the ultimate adaptation machines, and they adjust to whatever environment or stimulus we provide them with. Working at computers and sitting in vehicles for prolonged periods of time (like so many of us do) leads to a pretty common pattern of alignment.
This can lead to a number of unwanted side effects, including pain in the neck, mid back, and lower back, as well as in increased risk of injury to the shoulders, knees and ankles.
So, if poor posture is indeed a contributing factor towards your neck pain (as is often the case), what can you do about it?
1. Visit an Osteopath
Similar in some ways to Chiropractors, Osteopaths are trained professionals who can identify your posture issues and give you advice on how to go about correcting them. They may also use gentle manipulations, massage techniques or adjustments to release tension in the joints and return the spine to its proper alignment.
2. Perform corrective exercises
Posture issues often lead to imbalances in certain muscle groups, which can in fact cause further problems with your posture. It can be a vicious circle!
The foreword head posture for example leads to tightness in the muscles that cause the neck to protrude, including the sternocleidomastoid and scalene muscles. The muscles that cause retraction of the neck such as the cervices muscles are often weak and elongated.
In order to correct the forward head posture, it is often advised that you strengthen those weak, elongated muscles, and stretch out the ones that are overly tight.
Your osteopath or medical profession will likely provide you with some useful exercise, but this video from the guys at Body Blueprint may also be worth checking out for some extra ideas and inspiration.
3. Be mindful of your posture
It’s all well and good getting your neck adjusted and performing the exercises, but it’s unlikely that you’ll fix your posture and remain completely pain free unless you make changes to your everyday habits.
Try your best to limit the time you spend in positions that worsen your posture – namely sitting or slouching in front of a screen.
Put a cap on how long you spend in front of the TV or on the laptop, and use that free time to instead do some stretching or mobility work.
If you work in an office, be sure to take regular breaks to shake yourself out and stretch your problem areas. If you’re really lucky, you may even be able to install a standing desk in your workplace to cut your sitting time even further!
Deal with stress
Our bodies are designed to deal with acute, short-term stressful events. We have a clever, built in defence mechanism that comes in handy if we’re being chased by a wild animal or faced with some sort of conflict.
When a stressor is identified, the fight or flight response kicks in, and a number of hormones are secreted (including adrenaline and cortisol) to help us deal with the situation. We either fight, or we run.
Either way, once the situation is swiftly dealt with, the hormones dissipate, and the body shortly returns to normal.
In the modern world, we face chronic stressors – deadlines, traffic jams, relationship troubles… Problems start to occur because our bodies cannot tell the difference between these types of stressors and the attacking wild animal – the same stress response is activated.
The issue is that we rarely execute the fight or flight response. We instead sit there, getting frustrated; all the while the levels of cortisol and adrenaline remain elevated. Over time, these hormones can wreak havoc in the body, causing a number of issues.
One of the most common and obviously visible is bad posture (and subsequent neck pain).
As the guys over at Spine and Health explain:
“[stress] effects our immune system and increases our incidence of chronic illness, weight gain, weak bones and overly active muscles. All these things place a heavy load on our bodies and make it very difficult to maintain our upright position over time.”
When you are stressed out over prolonged time periods, the fascia that holds all your organs, muscles and connective tissues in place tightens due to a build up of collagen, which can cause stiffness and pain.
The guys over at Runner’s world explain how it works:
“Chronic stress causes the [fascia] fibers to thicken in an attempt to protect the underlying muscle. Poor posture and lack of flexibility and repetitive movements pull the fascia into ingrained patterns. Adhesions form within the stuck and damaged fibers like snags in a sweater, and once they’ve formed they’re hard to get rid of.”
In addition to specific mobility exercises and stretches, it is evident then that learning to deal with chronic stress in the right way may be beneficial for your posture, and help sort out the underlying cause of your neck pain. Here are a few ideas for you to explore:
Sitting quietly for 10-20 minutes a day and focussing on your breath is one of the best things you can do to help you deal with stressful events. Meditation brings you into the present moment, and over time gives you better control over your stress response.
No doubt your mind will wander and thoughts will pop up. When you notice that they do, simply bring yourself back to the breath, without judgement.
If sitting alone with your thoughts seems a little daunting to start, you could try guided meditation. Some are even targeted specifically towards eliminating neck pain, so they may be worth checking out.
2. Breathing exercises
Breathing is another great way to connect the mind and body and negate the effects of prolonged stress. There are numerous techniques that you can practice, but one in particular is particularly effective for stress relief, called two-to-one breathing.
As Reiki Master Yoga Chuck explains:
“2:1 breathing is a breathing practice where your exhalation is lengthened to twice the inhalation. This practice is deeply restful, restoring inner balance to the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight). Triggers a calming response that can dampen and stabilize the nervous system brought on by performance nerves like before a test, race, ball game, speech, interview…”
When you exhale, your heart rate lowers and your body moves towards the rest and digest state. Performing the exercise daily for 5-10 minutes should give you more control over your stress response and reduce the pain associated with it.
Last but not least, another common cause of neck pain is inflammation.
Inflammation occurs when the body feels under threat from an external or internal stressor. This might be in the form of an injury or illness, or as a side effect of diet and lifestyle choices.
It is typically characterized by acute pain, redness, swelling and sometimes loss of function. Every area of the body can be affected by inflammation, but it is commonly felt around the joints and connective tissues.
Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can bring down your levels of inflammation:
1. Keep hydrated
Water is essential for almost every bodily function, and research suggests that it’s great for beating inflammation too. Ensure you’re taking on a few litres a day, and consuming water rich foods.
2. Take on some turmeric
The yellow spice has been used for centuries in tradition Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including inflammation and joint pain. It contains the compound curcumin, which has long been thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.
3. Eat your greens
Theoretically, inflammation and disease can only thrive in an acidic environment, so it may be wise to try to bring the pH of your body back to a more alkaline measure. As well as being packed with health promoting micronutrients, green veggies are alkaline in nature, which may help to negate the any acidity and encourage your body towards a more alkaline state.
4. Get some good quality shut eye
Good quality sleep is an important part of the overall health puzzle, and is crucial for bringing down levels of inflammation. It’s during sleep that your body recovers and rebuilds after a hard day’s work. If you deprive yourself of sleep, your body may see this as a sign of stress and act accordingly, so make sure you’re getting enough.
We’ve also compiled a list of 13 of the best natural anti inflammatory foods here.