Neck pain is never an easy thing to manage. It can feel particularly intense compared to other areas of musculoskeletal pain due to its close proximity to our locus of attention and most of our senses (sight, hearing, smell etc).
Because we use our neck in almost every movement in daily life, neck pain (acute or persistent) can be a very disabling experience, limiting us in all areas of our lives from work, home life, and sport/exercise.
Neck pain obviously occurs predominantly around the back of the neck, but it can also be linked with certain types of headaches, and can even present in and around the shoulder blades and shoulder joint. For more on that read our article – ‘Cloward sign article’. When neck pain is present with pain down the arm &/or hands it is more to do with a specific irritation or injury to the cervical nerve root. For more reading on this, check out our article ‘where does neck pain come from.
Before we talk about some simple and effective strategies for relieving neck pain, it’s important to establish some central facts about neck pain:
- In most cases, a precise pathoanatomical cause for neck pain cannot be established
– or put simply, a clear issue in the tissue is not able to be identified in most cases
- Acute neck pain has a great natural history – 90% of symptoms are not present a month after initial onset
There are often some very simple things you can do to relieve your neck pain. We’ve put together our favourite tips and tricks below:
Avoid painful movements and positions for a short period of time
It seems cliche and passe to say this. However, you’ll be surprised just how much you’ll feel like pushing certain positions or movements just to test that it’s getting better, kind of like scratching at a scab before it’s fully healed. Avoiding painful movements for a brief period of time is particularly pertinent for the endurance copers out there (as opposed to the avoidance copers) who tend to push through and persist with activities or movements despite the considerable pain and discomfort they create.
When it comes to neck pain, and just acute pain in general, heat is often far more helpful than ice for the relief of pain and discomfort. Whilst ice can be helpful for reducing excess swelling, it interferes with the natural inflammatory healing response. Heat however has been shown to improve local tissue blood flow and sensitivity. Whether it’s a simple heat pack or a hot shower, using heat over the painful part of your neck can be very helpful in reducing pain in the short term. Just make sure the temperature isn’t too high, it can be easier than you think to burn yourself.
Towel Rotation Exercise
One of our favourite self-treatment strategies is the towel rotation exercise. This exercise helps to restore normal neck rotation range of motion when we have pain limiting it. To do it, wrap the towel around the part of your neck that is sore (low or high) – hold the higher part of the towel with the hand on the side you are turning towards, and the opposite hand on the lower part.
You can either use the towel in one of two ways:
- Turn the towel to move your head and neck into a deeper rotation stretch – holding for as long as is comfortable – generally 5-15 seconds on either side
- Turn the towel to move your head into a deeper rotation, then contract against the towel for 3-5 seconds, stretching a little deeper afterwards into the rotation movement. This can be repeated a few times as desired
Chin Retractions and Rotations
Our final favourite neck pain-relieving strategy is chin retractions and rotations. Commonly these are prescribed in sitting. However, we prefer doing these in four-point kneeling (see image below) to work against the resistance of gravity. As the muscles around the neck can seize into a protective spasm, gentle movement is required to reduce the threat perception of the nervous system. This movement is a great gentle graded exposure activity to assist in the restoration of normal neck movement.
For this movement – go onto hands and knees, and begin with gentle chin retraction movements, like a draw sliding in and out. If that feels comfortable you can add in a few rotations with a gentle retraction of the chin to either side. It can often be helpful to draw the shoulder blades down the back during this movement to create a sense of elongation through the neck