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Neck Pain

Definition

Neck pain is a common complaint. Neck muscles can be strained from poor posture — whether it's leaning into your computer at work or hunching over your workbench at home. Wear-and-tear arthritis also is a common cause of neck pain.

Rarely, neck pain can be a symptom of a more serious problem. Seek medical care if your neck pain is accompanied by numbness or loss of strength in your arms or hands or if you're experiencing shooting pain into your shoulder or down your arm.

Symptoms

Give your doctor as many specifics as you can about the location and severity of your pain. Be sure to mention any head or neck movements that make your neck pain better or worse.

Causes

Neck pain can result from a variety of causes, including:

Muscle strains. Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over a steering wheel, often triggers muscle strains. Even such minor things as reading in bed or gritting your teeth can strain neck muscles.

Nerve compression. Herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of your neck can take up too much space and press on the nerves branching out from the spinal cord.

Injuries. Rear-end auto collisions often result in whiplash injuries, which occur when the head is jerked backward and then forward, stretching the soft tissues of the neck beyond their limits.

Diseases. Neck pain can sometimes be caused by diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer.

Treatment & Drugs

The most common types of neck pain usually respond well to home care. If neck pain persists, your doctor may recommend other treatments.

Medications

Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medicine than what you can get over-the-counter. Muscle relaxants or tricyclic antidepressant medications used for pain also may be prescribed.

Therapy

Neck exercises and stretching. A physical therapist can guide you through these exercises and stretches so that you can do them on your own at home. Exercises may improve pain by restoring muscle function, optimizing posture to prevent overload of muscle, and increasing the strength and endurance of your neck muscles.

Traction. Traction uses weights and pulleys to gently stretch your neck and keep it immobilized.

Short-term immobilization. A soft collar that supports your neck may help relieve pain by taking pressure off the structures in your neck. If used for more than two weeks, however, a collar may do more harm than good.

Surgical and other procedures

Steroid injections. Your doctor may inject corticosteroid medications near the nerve roots, into the small facet joints in the bones of the cervical spine or into the muscles in your neck to help with pain.

Surgery. Surgery is rarely needed for neck pain. However, it may be an option for relieving nerve root or spinal cord compression.

Lifestyle & Home Remedies

Self-care measures you can try at home to relieve neck pain include:

Over-the-counter pain relievers. Try over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen (Aleve) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).

Alternate heat and cold.Reduce inflammation by applying cold, such as an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel, for up to 20 minutes several times a day. Or alternate the cold treatment with heat.

Rest. Lie down from time to time during the day to give your neck a rest from holding up your head. Avoid prolonged rest, since too much inactivity can cause increased stiffness in your neck muscles.

Gentle stretching. Gently move your neck to one side and hold it for 30 seconds. Stretch your neck in as many directions as your pain allows. This may help alleviate some of the pain.


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