You’re probably reading this on your phone. If not your phone, then we bet you’re looking at a computer screen. How is your neck? Is it bent down? Up? You may not realize you do it, but bending your neck for extended periods puts a lot of strain on your spine and can result in neck pain.
Approximately 15% of U.S. adults experience neck pain that lasts a full day or longer, and as people spend more and more time looking down at screens, the prevalence will continue and likely increase. Spondylosis and rheumatoid arthritis are also some of the most common causes of neck pain.
At Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, Dr. Ian Rodway regularly treats patients for neck and back pain. Fortunately, the majority of patients can achieve relief with non-surgical treatments. Here are four non-surgical treatments for mild to moderate neck pain.
#1. Apply Ice and/or Heat
Icing or heating your neck is probably the first advice you’ll hear if you complain of neck pain. But there’s actually a huge difference between icing and heating your neck, and it’s important to understand exactly what each treatment does for your symptoms.
Apply Ice for Injuries and Swelling
When an injury occurs, your body sends extra blood to the injured site to supply the injured area with extra oxygen and white blood cells. Sometimes, though, it takes this process too far. Swelling can cause the already injured region to cramp up even further, consequently pinching nerves. Additionally, swelling can cause muscular atrophy in the area, because the swollen area can cut off blood flow to other areas nearby. This is where some of the pain associated with swelling comes from.
Ice is an effective way to treat swelling because it constricts the blood vessels around the area and reduces blood flow. Moreover, some of the nerve receptors that send pain signals to your brain will send cold signals instead.
It’s also important to understand that cold therapy is only beneficial while swelling is in progress. It is actually inappropriate to ice an injury once it has finished swelling. This is primarily due to the fact that ice decreases the amount of oxygen supplied to the injury and that oxygen is essential for healing. You are actually slowing down the healing process if you apply ice after the swelling has gone down.
Apply Heat for Pain
Heat loosens up tight muscles, making it ideal for neck pain that is not associated swelling or another injury. Whether your muscles are too tight or stretched out, applying heat dilates the veins around them, sends more oxygen to the area, and promotes healing.
Heat can be applied to the neck with either a heating pad, heat wrap, or a warm bath. Heat should be applied for up to 20 minutes at a time, several times throughout the day.
Keep in mind, though, that you should not apply heat to an area that is swollen. Doing so will cause more blood to enter the swollen area and will actually make the swelling, as well as the pain associated with it, worse.
#2. Correct Your Posture
When most people think of posture, they think of sitting up straight in an office chair. While sitting improperly in an office chair has a lot to do with neck pain, the way you tilt your head over the course of a day can have just as much an affect. The average American spends 4.7 hours a day looking down at their phone. To put this into perspective, tilting your neck at a 20 degree angle – which is how many people look down at their devices – places an extra 30 pounds of pressure on your spine. In fact, over time, it can eventually cause the natural curve of your neck to disappear. In less extreme circumstances, it weakens the neck muscles and causes tightening of the shoulder muscles. All of these factors culminate to create chronic neck pain.
Whether sitting or standing, you should try to be looking straight forward whenever possible. If necessary, you may need to adjust your environment to reduce the amount of time you spend looking up or down. Today, there are even apps for smartphones that will alert you if you are tilting your head too much when viewing your screen.
#3. Exercise Your Neck and Core
Weak neck muscles can also cause neck pain. This is because the head tends to sag forward when neck muscles are weak, putting more stress on the cervical spine. Chin tucks are an easy and effective exercise for developing the muscles in your neck:
- Sit in a chair with your head, shoulders and upper back firmly supported or lie flat on your back on the floor.
- Slowly move your chin back and slightly down so your ears align with your shoulders. You should be able to feel a stretch in the back of your neck.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds and release.
- Repeat 8 to 10 times.
Moreover, strengthening your core muscles – which consist of your abdominal muscles, back muscles, and the muscles around the pelvis – will prevent your neck and shoulders from becoming overworked. Chair stands can be performed to improve your core:
- Sit in a chair with your feet hip-width apart.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and slowly stand up.
- Slowly sit down.
- Repeat 8 to 10 times.
You can also reduce neck pain with aerobic/cardio exercise. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to soft muscles and soft tissues of the neck and upper back. The oxygen provided by this increased blood flow loosens tight muscles, helps strengthen weakened ones, and helps increase the body’s range of motion.
#4. Stop Smoking
Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood which, as previously noted, serves a crucial role in the body’s ability to heal itself. In fact, cigarettes not only reduce the amount of oxygen present in your blood, but they also replace it with carbon monoxide. This can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and rapid heart rate in addition to just neck pain.
See a Specialist
The neck is one of the most complex parts of your body. While this article provides treatments for some of the most common reasons for neck pain, it is by no means comprehensive. Only an orthopedic specialist can diagnose your condition and recommend the most effective treatment plan.
At Beacon Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, Dr. Ian Rodway can diagnose and treat the source of your spinal condition. He is also qualified in all aspects of spinal surgery. You can schedule an appointment online to meet with Dr. Rodway at Beacon East or Beacon West as well as Beacon’s Summit Woods and Wilmington locations.