Pain Management

How to Stop That Pain in The Neck

Millions of people suffer from neck pain, an annoying condition that can hamper everyday life and leisure activities. But you’re likelier to suffer for a shorter time if you understand how to cope with it. Here, experts from the Harvard Medical School share their suggestions:

Depending on how serious your neck pain is, you may end up getting treatment. That treatment, the Harvard experts say, is designed to alleviate pain, reduce the possibility of injuring yourself again and to restore proper function. Physical therapy programs focus on strength and stretching, as well as medication and relaxation therapy if necessary. This multi-pronged approach usually results in long-term pain relief.
But what do you do in the moments after neck pain first strikes?

REST. The Harvard experts caution that bed rest is recommended only in cases of serious injury such as a neck fracture. But, they say, modifying activities can help reduce pain and even stop the injury from becoming worse.

Don’t do anything that might aggravate the injury. That means avoiding quick movements, positions that hurt you, and whatever activity you think caused the pain. The experts suggest keeping your neck in a “healthy” position. To do that, lie down for 20 to 30 minutes with your neck supported in a “neutral” position. The Harvard experts suggest specifically that you lie on your back with a pillow under your knees. Put a rolled-up towel, foam cylinder or cervical pillow under your neck. When it’s time to get up, they say, turn on your side and use your hands to push yourself into a sitting position.

Sometimes a physician might suggest a cervical collar to help rest neck muscles and protect damaged tissue. But, the Harvard experts say, these collars can reduce range of motion and weaken neck muscles if you use them over a long period of time. Be sure to follow your physician’s directions about using the collars.

APPLY COLD AND HEAT. After an injury, the Harvard experts say, use ice for a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes an hour for the first 24 to 48 hours. After that, you can alternate ice and heat or use either ice or heat alone.

To numb the pain and reduce swelling, wrap an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas) in a cloth and hold it to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. But don’t put ice directly on your skin for more than a minute.

Heat can reduce pain and stiffness, as well as relieve muscle spasms. The Harvard experts suggest applying a heat pack directly to the sore or tense area. And although you can buy heating pads and hot packs, the experts suggest heating a damp, folded towel in the microwave for about 10 to 60 seconds depending on the thickness of the towel and the strength of the oven. Just be sure to check the towel isn’t too hot before you apply it.

For more information on treating and coping with neck pain, buy Neck Pain: a Troubleshooting Guide to Help You Find Relief, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.