Coping with Neck Pain

We are a nation hunched. Hunched over our keyboards, bent over our smartphones, slouched in our cars during our ever-longer commutes.  All this poor posture is taking a heavy toll on our necks, as well as our wallets.

Neck pain can sometimes be caused by osteoarthritis, but is more commonly a result of just holding your head in the same place for a long time. This type of activity – or inactivity – causes strain on the muscles in your neck. Neck pain may also be caused by injuries, most famously whiplash induced by a rear-end automobile collision.

Besides the pain itself, other symptoms may include:

  • Muscle tightness and spasms
  • Decreased ability to move your head
  • Headache

The first line of relief for neck pain is over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Alternating cold and hot treatments – such as ice packs one day and a heating pad the next – is also recommended.

See a doctor if any of these symptoms persist on an ongoing basis. See a doctor immediately if your neck pain is the result of an injury.

Your doctor will likely order a batch of imaging tests to determine the cause of your pain. X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging can determine if your nerves or spinal cord are being pinched. Computer tomography can produce a detailed cross-sectional view of your neck's internal structure.

If your doctor suspects your pain is the result of a pinched nerve, she might jump right into electromyography. This procedure involves inserting needles through your skin into a muscle. Tests may then be performed to measure the speed of nerve conduction to determine whether specific nerves are functioning properly.

Depending upon how excruciating your neck pain is, your doctor may prescribe stronger painkillers than you could otherwise obtain over-the-counter. She may also prescribe muscle relaxants or tricyclic antidepressants for pain relief.

Discuss with your doctor whether she can recommend an “alternate medicine” approach to neck pain. Common options include:

  • Massage, in which a trained and accredited therapist manipulates the muscles in your neck with his hands;
  • Chiropractic adjustment, involving an abrupt but controlled force applied to a joint – usually in the spine;
  • Acupuncture, during which thin needles are inserted into various “acupuncture points” of your body, for analgesic effect.