Managing Neck Pain and Reducing Your Risks of Further Injury

Neck pain can be a pain in the neck for the nearly one third of Americans who experience it at least once a year. Neck pain may be caused by an injury, sleeping in an awkward position, or sitting at a computer for extended periods of time.

While all neck pain may feel similar, it’s categorized based on the cause and length of the pain. Neck pain that follows immediately after an injury or other event, such as a strain, is categorized as acute, and typically lasts less than four weeks. Neck pain that begins gradually and lasts more than three months is categorized as chronic.

Whether acute or chronic, pain may not be limited to just the neck. You may also feel pain in surrounding areas of the body, such as headaches in the back of the head or tension in the upper shoulders and extending down through the arms and fingers.

In young to middle-aged adults, neck pain often stems from a muscle strain or stretch. Older adults may also experience neck pain from injuries or other external causes such as poor posture or ill-fitting glasses, but for many, the pain is a symptom of arthritis or other illnesses.

Tips for Prevention and Treatment of Neck Pain

Identifying the cause of your neck pain is the first step in treating it and preventing it from recurring. You can start by making a few lifestyle changes that will help you avoid injury and muscle strain. At-home treatments are also available to help you manage pain.

Lifestyle Tips for Prevention

While injuries or specific events may cause neck pain, so can everyday life tasks such as your job. Manual labor can lead to injuries or muscle strain, but stationary work is also a major cause of neck pain. For example, people working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic may experience neck pain because of constant sitting at makeshift workstations, like at the dining room table or on the couch. The best way to avoid neck pain while working is to keep your computer monitor at eye level and sit in a chair that helps keep your back straight and your neck straight. Try to avoid sitting for long periods of time. If possible, use a standing or walking desk to keep your body upright and moving.

To reduce the risk of injury while exercising or participating in other physical activities, you should do warm-up exercises beforehand and use proper form during the activity. To avoid neck pain from muscle tension caused by stress, try activities like meditation and deep breathing.

Other Tips for Treatment

When experiencing neck pain, try to avoid bending and lifting as much as possible. Do not take long car rides or put yourself in situations where you would need to remain in the same position for an extended period of time. Gentle stretching can be helpful, but use caution because overexertion can further strain your muscles. Muscle therapy like massage may help for some, but it could aggravate your pain if you aren’t working with a licensed masseuse or physical therapist. Applying heat is another way to soothe the affected muscles.

After your pain subsides, it’s best to hold off on any strenuous activities. Start slowly and work gradually toward your previous level of activity to avoid further damage, such as a herniated disc in your neck.

Treatment With Over-the-Counter Medicines

Certain over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines can help relieve neck pain symptoms. For best results, you should take pain medicine at the first sign of neck pain. OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen (or brand name TYLENOL®) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen (or brand name Advil®); aspirin (or brand name EXCEDRIN®); and naproxen sodium (or brand name Aleve®). Some OTC pain relievers contain a combination of acetaminophen and an NSAID. There are also topical anti-inflammatories that can be applied directly to the neck.

Not all OTC pain relievers work for specific causes of neck pain, so it’s important to understand each medication’s intended purpose and read the Drug Facts label before deciding whether to take it. This assessment tool can help you figure out which OTC pain relievers are right for you.

Signs That You Should See a Doctor

Neck pain will usually subside on its own with a combination of rest and OTC medications, but if the pain gets worse or does not go away or begin to subside within a few days, you should talk with your doctor. If you notice symptoms such as numbness or a lump in the neck, changes in bowel or bladder function, severe headaches and fever, or difficulty swallowing, consult a healthcare professional immediately.

A proper diagnosis can lead to the development of an effective treatment plan and prevent your condition from worsening.

For more information about neck pain, its causes, and how to treat it, visit the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ online resource center.

Stuart J. Fischer, MD.

Meet Our Experts

Stuart J. Fischer, M.D.

Stuart J. Fischer MD has been practicing orthopedic surgery in Summit, New Jersey for over 40 years. He has written or created numerous patient education articles and videos. He is the past editor of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ website OrthoInfo.org and author of the book 100 Questions and Answers About Hip Replacement.