What a pain in the neck!

What a pain in the neck!

Neck pain, part 1

Ranking closely behind low back pain, neck pain is another common source of muscle-joint complaints.  A 2003 study from the Netherlands found that 40-50% of people surveyed reported episodes of neck pain, some lasting more than 3 months. A 2007 article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) estimates that at some point in life, 2/3’s of the population will experience neck pain, especially during “middle age.”  This makes neck pain the 2nd most common musculoskeletal complaint to primary care physicians.  Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States posted an article reporting 16.3 million visits to doctor’s offices and hospitals due to neck pain.  Of those visits 15% were related to disc problems, 26% were due to injury.  And neck pain is frequently associated with certain types of headache.

Common Causes of Neck Pain

Similar to low back pain, neck pain can come from several causes.  Thankfully, most of these are not serious conditions or medical emergencies.  Common causes of neck pain include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Injury/trauma (from sports, falls, and accidents)
  • Arthritis/joint problems
  • Disc problems (herniated, bulging, “slipped”, etc.)
  • Posture


Rare but serious causes of neck pain are tumors and infection.

Office workers, students, and other people who sit at a computer for long periods of time have a much higher rate of neck pain, with slightly more complaints coming from women than men.  Hair stylists and other occupations that hold their arms up for long periods of time can also be prone to neck problems.  One thing that all of these people typically have in common is poor posture.  Poor posture puts massive amounts of stress on the joints of the upper back and muscles of the head and neck.  (More on this in the 3rd post in this series)

When to Seek Medical Attention for Neck Pain

Acute neck pain usually resolves itself in days or weeks with normal activities.  However, there are things you can do at home to reduce your neck pain, and there are times you need to seek medical attention.  If you experience the following along with your neck pain, seek medical attention:

  • Pain that prevents you from sleeping
  • Numbness and/or tingling in the head, face, or arms
  • Arm weakness
  • Intense headache, visual disturbances, fever, or general “bad” feeling (malaise)
  • Neck pain following trauma that could have caused a fracture (falls, injuries, accidents)
  • Neck pain that is getting worse in spite of self-treatment
  • Neck pain that is not getting better after 4-6 weeks of self-treatment

Treating Neck Pain at Home

So what can you do if you wake up with a “crick” in your neck or get pain after sitting at a computer?  Try these tips to treat common episodes of neck pain.

  1. If you have injured your neck in the past 48-72 hours, ice your neck for 15 minutes. This can be repeated as needed every hour.
  2. For neck pain that is not due to an injury or is more than 72 hours old, take a hot shower or use a moist heating pad. 15-30 minutes is generally recommended with at least an hour between sessions.
  3. Try the “tennis ball trick.” (video)


  1. Stretch your neck and strengthen postural muscles.
  2. Work to improve your posture.
  3. Get a massage.

If you have tried the steps listed above and continue to have neck pain, it is time to seek medical attention.  Your primary care physician (MD or DO), a physical therapist (particularly one who uses manual therapy), or a chiropractor commonly treat neck pain.  Massage therapy and acupuncture are forms of alternative medicine that also help many people.

The 2nd post in my series on neck pain will give you specific exercises you can do to treat your neck pain.


**While this post includes basic medical information about neck pain, it is not intended to diagnose or prescribe specific treatment for individuals.  If you have a history of serious medical problems, questions, or other concerns, consult an appropriate medical professional.**


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