What is neck pain?
This is a term encompassing pain, discomfort or stiffness felt anywhere from the base of the head, the back and sides of the neck and across the tops of the shoulders and shoulder blade area.
Episodes of neck pain can occur in anyone with wide ranging occupations, hobbies and levels of activity.
In recent years, our lifestyles and work situations have become more sedentary and more people are experiencing discomfort in the neck. This can be reduced by exercises and regular movement. Many people believe that ‘perfect posture’ will manage neck pain, but evidence does not support this. Our bodies are designed to move. Staying in one position for any length of time, no matter what that position is, can become uncomfortable. So it’s not about perfect posture but generally moving more.
Other, factors such as stress, tiredness or eye strain can contribute to ongoing or persistent neck pain. This can lead to pain or discomfort in the areas that tighten up when we are stressed leading to the feeling of stiffness.
Those with physical jobs and people who take part in regular exercise can also develop neck pain. Some people feel their symptoms come on after a specific event or injury but for others symptoms can seem to come from nowhere. The above factors including stress and tiredness can contribute to their symptoms and affect their recovery, as well as fear that their job or hobby could be harmful and prolong their episode.
An MRI scan is not needed in the early stages as symptoms are likely to improve; it is unlikely to change your management and does not provide a prediction of your outcome.
How to manage neck pain
Reassuringly, many people find they have a natural recovery from an episode of neck pain without requiring any treatment. The timeframe for this can vary and for some people it can take several months.
Keeping active is important and neck pain can be eased through movement. If you are normally an active person or have a physical job, initially you may need to modify the type, intensity or frequency of activity and gradually build up to your normal levels.
Often, people try to ‘protect’ their neck to stop the pain coming back by becoming more guarded with their movements. They may be more cautious with activities such as lifting and carrying. These movements and activities, however, are normal and safe. As your pain starts to improve gradually increase these movements and activities, increasing the amount of weight as appropriate to you. If you have regular hobbies, you should try to get back to these as soon as you can, although you may need to build up gradually.
It may be uncomfortable to move, but this does not mean that movement is harmful. Painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce pain allowing you to move more comfortably. In general people that use pain control to help them to start to move and return to activity, recover quicker than people that hold themselves stiff and continue to avoid activity.
Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain, but need to be taken regularly in order to control the pain. Always follow the instructions on the packet.
Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can help with swelling, and therefore help you move more freely. Follow the instructions on the packet and discuss using them safely with a pharmacist, especially if you have any underlying health conditions
However, you should not take ibuprofen for 48 hours after an initial injury as it may slow down healing.
Up to date guidelines can be found on the NHS website:
Other medicines can help to reduce inflammation, swelling and pain. You should discuss this with your GP if the simple pain relief advice does not help or if you are needing to take ibuprofen for more than 10 days.
If it is too painful to do the exercise in sitting, then you can start them lying on your back with your head on a pillow.
- Bend your head forward until you feel a stretch behind your neck, bring your head back to neutral repeat this little and often throughout the day.
- Pull your chin in, keeping your neck and back straight (not tipping your head forwards). Hold at the end position and feel the stretch in your neck. Repeat this exercise little and often throughout the day.
- Look up as far as you are happy to go feel the stretch then bring head back to starting position. Do the exercise slowly and relaxed repeating this little and often throughout the day.
- In sitting. Turn your head to one side until you feel a stretch. Repeat to other side. Repeat this exercise little and often throughout the day.
Prevention and long term management of persistent neck pain
Today’s lifestyles can involve a lot of static and sustained postures, leading to increased muscle tension and sensitising the structures around the neck. By identifying these points in our day and breaking up these patterns with regular movement, we can help prevent the onset of neck pain.
Emotional stress for whatever reason in our lives will also increase tension in our body and make us more prone to perceiving pain in sensitised structures. We are becoming more aware of the need to look after our mental health and there are many resources available to help with mindfulness and relaxation. Making something like abdominal breathing a regular part of your day could reduce the build–up of tension (see ‘understanding the complexity of pain and other influencing factors’ section for links to helpful resources).
Poor sleep also contributes to pain. Getting into good sleep routine such as relaxing or mindfulness at bedtime will have an impact on decreasing your sensitivity to pain.
General exercise is good for our physical and mental health as well as helping to manage neck pain. Using the government guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity (or 75 minutes vigorous such as running) cardiovascular exercise over a week as well as 2 days of strength and balance exercise, is a good way to help judge if you are as active as you could/should be.
Understanding the complexity of pain and other influencing factors
What we have learnt through research is that pain, especially persistent pain is more complex than just what is going on locally to where you feel the pain. It can be affected by many things including poor sleep, poor general health, reduced fitness, stress, past experience of pain and our beliefs about pain and our physical structure. These factors have a very real physical effect on pain and how your body functions. The links below provide some insight into understanding pain, understanding your own beliefs around your pain and then looking at positive changes you can make that can in turn have a positive effect on your pain and levels of function.
Understanding pain in less than 5 minutes – Online video looking at the complexity of pain and the brain.
Why things hurt – Online explain pain video from Lorimer Mosley
Tame the Beast – Website with information on persistent pain
Pain Tool Kit – Website created by a patient to help manage persistent pain providing education and knowledge on how to improve self-management.
Pain-ed – Website providing patient and clinician information regarding pain and specifically back pain and Cognitive Functional Therapy
Abdominal breathing, relaxation and sleep
Stress and tension are common with persistent pain. For some it may be part of the underlying cause for many it’s a consequence as pain itself causes more stress and anxiety. What we know is that if we can use tools to help reduce our muscle tension and stress this can help with pain, sleep and function. Below are links you may find useful
Abdominal breathing – a written description from the NHS website.
Headspace – This is a website and APP that uses meditation and breathing.
Breathe2relax. This is an APP specifically for abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing – go onto your smart phones APP store for more details
Sleep well with pain – Leaflet to help try and improve sleep
Below are links to local services that can help with aspects of physical and mental health that you feel may be impacting your pain and general health.
Live well Dorset – Weight management, stop smoking, exercise advice, lifestyle change 0800 8401628/ 01305 233105
Steps to wellbeing – for help with feelings of anxiety, depression, bereavement and trauma/PTSD
Welcome to the moodzone – for help with self-management of stress, anxiety and depression
Dorset Pain Management Service website – This website contains a lot of further information and links about pain and also gives you the opportunity to see if you feel a referral to the Pain Service may be beneficial for you.
Understanding persistent pain – this booklet is commonly used by the Dorset Pain Management Service.
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