Most of us will suffer from neck pain at some point in our lives—it’s the fourth-leading cause of chronic disability in the United States. It’s no wonder that we call an aggravating, unrelenting person or situation “a pain in the neck.”
What about actual neck pain that just won’t go away?
You may be enduring a low-level, nagging pain in the neck…or pain that’s so severe that you can hardly turn your head. Either way, assuming that you and your doctor have ruled out a problem like cervical dystonia (where neck muscles contract, causing the head to turn or twist to one side) or some other specific health condition, your doctor may have few options other than an endless supply of pain pills. And that’s not only frustrating—it can be dangerous.
But whatever is causing your neck to ache, new research has pinpointed what exactly works best to help you feel better. Some of these new solutions may even lead to new, fun and healthful practices, and they all get you moving! Plus, none of them involves taking pain pills.
GETTING A GRIP ON NECK PAIN
Until now, no one really knew for sure what specific types of exercises worked best for neck pain. Now a new study from Canada has answered this important question.
“We’ve gained a lot of knowledge about how to treat neck pain and at what time,” Pierre Côté, DC, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and lead author of the new study, told Daily Health News. “The right treatment can reduce pain so that a person can return to his or her normal activities faster,” he added.
Firstly, Dr. Côté recommends that you not be too impatient about mild neck pain. It will usually get better within a week, so give that much time to allow the pain and stiffness to subside before running off to a doctor for treatment. Be aware that treating neck pain too often too early after it starts can trigger a phenomenon called chronic illness behavior, which actually prolongs time to recovery. It’s a psychological reaction. The more treatment you get, the more you may feel like you are disabled and continue to experience pain.
RELIEF FOR NEW, MILD NECK PAIN
Gentle stretching and range-of-motion exercises, done all by yourself in the privacy of your home, help keep your neck muscles toned and limber and are usually enough to bounce back from mild neck pain caused by muscle strain from, for example, spending too much time in front of your computer or whiplash from a minor car accident. If that sounds simple, it is, but the fact is that many people do the opposite when they have any kind of neck pain—they try to not move their necks…often wearing a protective neck collar or brace. Bad choice!
Instead, said Dr. Côté, try doing five to 10 repetitions of these simple movements three to four times daily (the sequence doesn’t matter, but do them slowly)…
- Act as if you are saying “no” by slowly rotating your head from right to left and back again, making sure to turn your head as far as it will comfortably go to enhance range of motion.
- Act as if you are saying “yes” by nodding your head up and down, gently stretching your head up as if to view the ceiling and flexing it down as if to look at the floor to work on range of motion.
- Act as if you are saying “maybe” by tipping your head from side to side, moving each ear toward that side’s shoulder.
Also, keep active in general, but avoid any activities or movements that aggravate the neck pain. Remember, you want a good stretch, not a strain.
RELIEF FOR LONG-TERM PERSISTENT PAIN
What happens when nagging neck pain doesn’t go away in a week or so and your doctor has no real solution? You don’t have to just grin and bear it. The study by Dr. Côté and his team found that ongoing neck pain can be eased with a combination of range-of-motion exercises (described above) and flexibility and strengthening exercises or routines, particularly qigong and Iyengar yoga.
Qigong is a popular ancient Chinese art that combines slow movement with meditation. Iyengar yoga is a type of Hatha yoga that focuses on structural alignment. Like qigong, Iyengar yoga also emphasizes slow, precise movement and meditative focus. In fact, the study by Dr. Côté and his team found that practicing qigong was better than doing nothing at all and that Iyengar yoga was more effective at reducing neck pain and stiffness than just doing home-based stretching and strengthening exercises. What’s more, the study found that home-based range-of-motion exercises were not any less effective than expensive supervised intensive rehabilitative neck-strengthening exercises. So why not consider making a simple set of range-of-motion neck exercises part of your daily routine…and have some fun? Learn something new and kick your health and well-being up a big notch by trying a class in qigong or Iyengar yoga.
FOR SEVERE NECK PAIN
Severe neck pain and stiffness that’s really bad and lasting might be the sign of a number of other conditions, such cervical dystonia or a pinched nerve (often accompanied by a shooting pain down the arm). To find out exactly what’s wrong and what the remedy is, it is best to consult a medical doctor, physiotherapist or chiropractor who can make a diagnosis, refer you to a specialist and set up a treatment plan.