Your neck has a hard job — holding up your head. Leaning into your computer or hunching over your workbench just makes its job more difficult. Poor posture certainly contributes to neck pain. Your neck contains bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles and nerves, any of which can hurt. Neck pain also may come from regions near your neck, such as your jaw, head and shoulders. Conversely, problems in your neck can make other parts of your body hurt, such as your upper back, shoulders or arms.
Causes of neck pain:
Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over a steering wheel, often triggers muscle strains. Neck muscles, particularly those in the back of your neck, become fatigued and eventually strained. When you overuse your neck muscles repeatedly, chronic pain can develop. Even such minor things as reading in bed or gritting your teeth can strain neck muscles.
Arthritis. Just like all the other joints in your body, your neck joints tend to deteriorate with age.
Disk disorders. As you age, the cushioning disks between your vertebrae become dry, narrowing the spaces in your spinal column where the nerves come out. The disks in your neck also can herniate. This means the inner gelatinous material of a disk protrudes through the disk’s tough covering. Nearby nerves can be irritated. Other tissues and bony growths also can press on your nerves as they exit your spinal cord, causing pain.
Injury. Rear-end collisions often result in whiplash injuries, which occur when the head is jerked forward and back, stretching the soft tissues of the neck beyond their limits.
Most neck pain responds well to home care. Neck injuries or strains often result in painful inflammation. You may want to try over-the-counter pain relievers that also combat inflammation, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve). Acetaminophen relieves pain but not inflammation.
Ice is another good way to reduce inflammation. Heat can help relax sore muscles, but it sometimes aggravates inflammation, so use it with caution. Apply heat or ice for 15 to 20 minutes, with a 40-minute rest between applications.
For pain that doesn’t get better with simple home-care measures, your doctor may recommend:
Physical therapy. Heat, ice or similar treatments combined with an appropriate stretching and muscle strengthening program may enhance the structures that support your cervical spine. Such treatments are often all you need for neck pain.
Pain medications. Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medicine than what you can get over-the-counter. Opioid analgesics are sometimes used briefly to treat acute neck pain. Muscle relaxants or tricyclic antidepressant medications also may be prescribed.
Traction. This therapy, under supervision of a medical professional and physical therapist, may provide relatively fast relief of some neck pain, especially pain related to nerve root irritation. Relief may last for hours or even days.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Electrodes placed on your skin near the painful areas deliver tiny electrical impulses that may relieve pain.
Corticosteroid medication. Although there is some evidence that corticosteroids are useful, research is inconclusive. These drugs may be administered orally or via injection into the space around the nerve roots.
Short-term immobilization. A soft cervical collar that supports your neck without taxing your muscles may help.
Surgery. Surgery is rarely needed for neck pain. It is used to relieve nerve root or spinal cord compression.
Most neck pain is associated with poor posture. The goal is to keep your head centered over your spine, so gravity works with your neck instead of against it. Some simple changes in your daily routine may help.
Take frequent breaks if you drive long distances or work long hours at your computer. Keep your head back, over your spine, to reduce neck strain. Try to avoid gritting your teeth.
Adjust your desk, chair and computer so the monitor is at eye level. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair’s armrests.
Avoid tucking the phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. If you use the phone a lot, get a headset.
Stretch frequently if you work at a desk. Shrug your shoulders up and down. Pull your shoulder blades together and then relax. Pull your shoulders down while leaning your head to each side to stretch your neck muscles.
Balance your base. Stretching the front chest wall muscles and strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade and back of the shoulder can promote a balanced base of support for the neck.
Avoid sleeping on your stomach. This position puts stress on your neck. Choose a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck.
For more information, visit MayoClinic.com.