10 Ways to Treat Neck Strain



Most of us have experienced a neck strain, either from overextending the neck muscles or from improper posture. Here’s 10 ways to treat sore neck muscles, neck strain, or a stiff neck.

You are driving in your car when 2-year-old Junior sitting in the back seat all of a sudden breaks out in an unbearable shriek.  What could have happened? Did she injure herself somehow? You quickly turn to the right to view the back seat to investigate, when you feel a sudden kink in your neck. Ouch. All to realize that she’s dropped her T-Rex on the floor. I know many of you relate can relate to this monumental toddler tragedy.

More often than not, however, I find patients in the office who have neck pain without a precipitating injury. It just seems to pop up out of nowhere. This can be even more frustrating, not knowing what you could have possibly done to trigger it.

In both situations, the cause is a strain of the neck muscles or ligaments that is typically benign and self-resolving. However, sometimes it can come and go, depending on what is causing it. And in others, neck strain can become chronic if it’s ignored.

Let’s learn what neck strain is, ten tried and true stiff neck remedies, plus when you should consider seeing your doctor about neck strain.

What Is Neck Strain?

The back of the neck is referred to as the “cervical spine,” and comprises of seven vertebral bones surrounded by ligaments, nerves, and muscles. The central canal of these vertebrae house nerves that send messages by running up and down between the brain and our body. Therefore, if we strain these tissues, the nerves that run through them to feed the body parts can also get inflamed. This can cause numbness and/or tingling down the arm and to the hands.
Once it’s injured, our immune system responds by attempting to patch it up. Therefore it inflames the area, and even may collect extra fluid around it. And when touching it or using that particular muscle, it is painful. It’s our body’s protective way of telling us that we need to allow that part that hurts to heal.

There are two ways in which we can strain this region of the spine. First, by a specific injury that overstrains the neck muscles and other structures. The “whiplash” from a car accident, over extending or improper movement of the neck (such as turning to view the backseat of the car), and direct trauma to the site (such as while playing football) are common ways that people injure the neck.

Another cause is improper posture, especially during prolonged sitting, standing, or poor sleep positions. Very often this is due to work station ergonomics, whether it’s while using your computer at home or at work, or while remaining in the same position for prolonged periods of time.

Diagnosis of Neck Strain

Your doctor can diagnose neck strain simply with a history and physical exam. Without a trauma triggering the event, an Xray or other imaging is usually not necessary for acute neck strain. Imaging can be considered if the pain becomes chronic, which is not frequently the case.

So, what can you do about neck muscle pain? Keep reading for 10 remedies to neck strain and pain, plus, learn when to see your doctor.

Treatment of Neck Strain

Even if you do nothing to actively treat the neck strain, most of the time it will heal on its own as long as the underlying cause has been eliminated. Otherwise, you can help it along with some of the following quick and dirty tips:

  1. Rest: Avoid reinjuring the c-spine. Next time junior decides to drop a bomb in the back seat, do yourself a favor and pull over—or better yet wait until you have reached your destination.
  2. Proper Posture:  Imagine you are being held up with a string like a puppet. Be constantly cognizant of your spine positioning. Shoulders back, head facing forward. Always use the back support of your seat in the car, at work, and everywhere you sit.
  3. Proper Work Station Ergonomics: Some employers offer an ergonomic evaluation. Employers realize that it’s often well worth the cost of the evaluation and equipment, rather than having to deal with a workers compensation case. If not, you can check out the Occupation Safety and Health Administration’s diagrams to learn vital work station posture. And check out the Mayfield Clinic’s page for photos of proper sleep positions.
  4.  Ice and/or Heat: Ice aids with acute inflammation and heat loosens the muscles. Rotating each every 20 minutes also can help. But in general, use whatever best relieves the pain.
  5. Stretching:  The last thing you want is to remain inactive. Continuing with your daily routine activities is vital, and stretching exercises on a daily basis can keep the muscles from stiffening.
  6. Anti-inflammatories:  Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen, are one of the mainstays of treatment. Not only do they help relieve pain, but they also fight the inflammation. A common regimen is ibuprofen 600mg (always with food) three times a day for a time period (like one week), and then as needed. Not everyone can take them, however, so please ask your doctor first.
  7. Pain relievers:  Acetaminophen is another OTC option but lacks anti-inflammatory properties.
  8. Muscle relaxants:  These can help loosen up the muscles for some, but does not attack the underlying problem, which is the inflammation. But they can help as an adjunct to anti-inflammatories. They tend to be sedating, therefore must be taken at bedtime.
  9. Corticosteroids:  If you have numbness and/or tingling down the arm that is associated with the neck pain, another regimen that may be considered is a short course of prescription steroids to quickly calm down the nerve.
  10. Physical therapy:  Physical therapy can aid in strengthening and improving the range of motion of the neck muscles.

It’s always best to air on the side of caution if you are unsure or concerned in any way.

When to See Your Doctor

  • If you’ve had an injury precipitating the pain.
  • If the symptoms last longer than 4-6 weeks.
  • If there are problems with your bowel or urine.
  • If there are other neurological symptoms, like problems with the speech, motor skills, balance, vision, sensation, etc.
  • If it’s progressively worsening despite conservative treatment.

It’s always best to air on the side of caution if you are unsure or concerned in any way.

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Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only.  This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider.  Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

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