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Chronic Neck Pain: How to Find Relief

Almost everyone has awoken with a stiff neck from time to time. Even an innocuous incident, such as turning to look behind you as you back out of a parking spot, can lead to pain. How can you tell if your neck pain is more than just a brief nuisance? And is it possible to treat chronic neck pain at home?

Life Can Be a Pain in the Neck

Many aspects of everyday life can cause bouts of chronic neck pain. Muscle tension from hunching over a desk all day might make your neck sore, and contorting your neck during exercise can irritate nerves and trigger a pain response. Here are some other causes -- both everyday and related to a specific condition -- of neck discomfort:

  • Poor posture.
  • Setting your computer monitor too high.
  • Spinal stenosis.
  • A bulging spinal disc.
  • Spinal arthritis.

Rarely, neck pain might be caused by a serious medical issue such as meningitis. However, these conditions usually involve several other symptoms. If you experience sudden, severe neck pain or stiffness accompanied by a fever, nausea, or vomiting, you should seek immediate medical attention.

7 Home Remedies for Neck Pain

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers an online tool you can use to assess your neck pain. This will help you determine if your symptoms might be serious or if you can try self-treatment.

Most people can safely try treating their pain at home before seeking further medical attention. These remedies work well for pain caused by muscle tension or spasms:

  • Apply ice. Place a towel between your skin and the ice, and ice for just 20 minutes at a time over the course of 24 to 48 hours.
  • After ice, try heat. If your neck continues to hurt after a couple of days of icing, use heat to relax your neck muscles. You can try warm compresses (damp towels) or a heating pad.
  • Use over-the-counter pain medications. Try using ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen to treat your neck pain, but make sure you don't have an allergy and to use the proper doses.
  • Get a massage. Ask your spouse or friend to massage your neck -- or get a professional to do it.
  • Try changing pillows. If your neck pain feels worse in the morning and then clears up during the day, buy a new pillow. Some pillows are designed for people with persistent neck pain.
  • Create an ergonomic work station. In particular, make sure your computer monitor is adjusted so it's at eye level. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration offers a handy checklist to help you design a comfortable workstation that's safe for your neck.
  • Take a break and perform upper-body stretches. Chronic neck pain can result from weak chest muscles. The Arthritis Foundation offers several tips for strengthening and stretching your upper body to help alleviate pain.

Time to See the Doc

If your neck pain persists for more than a week despite your best efforts at self-treatment, you should make an appointment with your health care provider. The doctor will evaluate your pain and make treatment recommendations, starting with the least-invasive approach. For example, you may receive a prescription for physical therapy and strong anti-inflammatory medication at first.

If noninvasive treatments don't resolve your neck pain, your doctor may suggest several other treatments, including:

  • Corticosteroid injections. These medications deliver a large dose of anti-inflammatory medication directly to irritated nerves.
  • Minimally invasive spinal surgery. If a spinal nerve in your neck is being pinched by a collapsed disc or arthritic bone spurs, you may benefit from surgery to relieve pressure on the nerve. Your doctor may be able to accomplish this with a minimally invasive surgical technique that involves only small incisions.
  • Traditional spinal surgery. When your chronic neck pain is caused by severe spinal stenosis or multiple bulging discs, you may need a traditional surgery to repair these issues.

For chronic neck pain, prevention is the best treatment. Pay attention to your posture, exercise with care, and stretch your muscles regularly to help keep your neck healthy and pain-free. It's good to know the right treatment tactics that you can try on your own, but if the pain persists, it's time to get to the doctor.

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