If you’re suffering from ongoing neck pain that just won’t go away, you’re not alone. Chronic neck pain affects up to 71% of adults at some point in their lives. While occasional neck aches and stiffness are normal, chronic pain takes a real toll on your daily life. Fortunately, with proper treatment you can find real relief.
I spoke with Dr. John Davis, a pain management specialist, to get his expert advice on managing chronic neck pain. With over 20 years of experience treating neck disorders, Dr. Davis provided invaluable insights on controlling stubborn neck pain.
What Causes Chronic Neck Pain?
Many factors can contribute to ongoing neck pain. According to Dr. Davis, some of the most common include:
- Poor posture – Slouching strains neck muscles and joints. Looking down at phones and devices leads to painful muscle tension.
- Past injuries – Car accidents, sports injuries, and falls can cause chronic damage leading to long-term pain. Whiplash is a common culprit.
- Spinal disorders – Conditions like spinal stenosis, spondylosis, herniated discs, and degenerative disc disease often worsen over time.
- Muscle tension – Stress and anxiety cause the neck muscles to tighten, resulting in persistent soreness and stiffness.
- Pinched nerves – Herniated discs or bone spurs can compress nerves, producing numbness, tingling, and severe pain.
Breaking the Pain Cycle
Dr. Davis emphasized that ongoing pain itself eventually perpetuates more pain. He stated:
“The pain signals create a vicious cycle where the nerves become overly sensitized. This leads to more muscle tension and spasms. Before long, the pain feeds on itself, creating stiffness and discomfort even without the original injury.”
He noted the importance of breaking this pain cycle by combining medical treatment with self-care strategies. Allowing pain to continue unchecked often leads to worsening damage over time.
Self-Care Tips for Neck Pain
For home-based care, Dr. Davis recommended:
- Exercises – Light stretching and strengthening moves help build neck muscle strength and flexibility. But start slow and easy.
- Posture aids – Use towels or small cushions to support the neck when sitting. Car headrests should align with the middle of your head.
- OTC medications – Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or NSAIDs can temporarily alleviate pain and inflammation.
- Heat or ice – Apply heat to relax tense muscles or cold packs to reduce inflammation. But don’t overdo it.
- Massage – Have a partner gently massage sore neck muscles. Or use a handheld massager on yourself.
- Stress management – Try yoga, deep breathing, or meditation to relieve muscle tension from stress.
Signs It’s Time to Seek Medical Care
Self-care can provide some relief for mild neck pain. But Dr. Davis emphasized contacting a doctor for:
- Pain lasting more than 2 weeks or disrupting sleep/activities
- Severe pain or stiffness that progressively worsens
- Pain that radiates down the arms or is accompanied by numbness
- Dizziness, headaches, nausea, or weakness
- Any trauma like a fall or accident that injures the neck
Seeing a doctor helps determine if there’s an underlying spinal or nerve condition requiring treatment. Leaving chronic neck pain unchecked often allows more severe damage over time.
Diagnosing the Underlying Cause
To identify the source of pain, doctors conduct a medical history and physical exam. Dr. Davis noted some other common tests include:
- Spinal imaging – X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs reveal disk, bone, or tissue abnormalities.
- EMG testing – Measures electrical activity in muscles to detect nerve dysfunction.
- Bone scans – Use radioactive tracers to detect spine abnormalities or arthritis.
- Diskography – Injects dye into disks to check for tears or ruptures.
Medical Treatments for Neck Pain
Once the origin is uncovered, doctors develop a tailored treatment plan. Dr. Davis outlined some common medical treatments:
- Medications – Prescription NSAIDs, steroids, muscle relaxers and even tricyclic antidepressants may be prescribed.
- Epidural injections – Steroid medication injected into the neck can reduce nerve inflammation.
- Nerve blocks – Numbing injections block pain signals from reaching the brain.
- Physical therapy – Stretches, exercises, and manual techniques provide pain relief and improve neck mobility.
- Surgery – If more conservative treatments fail, surgery may be warranted depending on the cause.
Making Lifestyle Changes
Beyond medical interventions, Dr. Davis emphasized certain lifestyle changes critical for managing neck pain:
- Exercise regularly – Low impact cardio and strength training improves spine health. Check with your doctor first about specific exercises.
- Maintain proper posture – Reduce slouching and avoid bending the neck for long periods.
- Manage weight – Excess weight strains the neck. Losing extra pounds relieves pressure.
- Quit smoking – Smoking restricts blood flow, delaying neck injury healing.
- Limit repetitive motions – Take frequent breaks when performing tasks requiring prolonged awkward neck positions.
- Reduce stress – Try relaxation techniques like yoga or Tai Chi to ease muscle tension.
- Use ergonomic equipment – Chairs, keyboards, and desks should correctly align the neck and back.
Learning to Cope with Chronic Neck Pain
While total elimination of pain may be unrealistic, most patients can achieve meaningful improvement through comprehensive treatment. Dr. Davis suggested these tips for coping with stubborn neck pain:
- Remain patient and positive. Controlling chronic pain takes time. Focus on small achievements.
- Follow pain management advice closely, including at-home exercises, lifestyle changes, and physician visits.
- Don’t underestimate the power of self-care. Using heating pads, massage, and good posture go a long way.
- Keep communicating with your medical providers about how treatments are working and any side effects.
- If one treatment fails, try another. Finding the right option may require persistence through some trial and error.
- Consider cognitive behavioral therapy to develop healthy thought patterns around pain.
- Join a support group to connect with others also managing chronic neck discomfort.
Chronic neck pain can be extremely disruptive, but lasting relief is often within reach. While home remedies can temporarily ease discomfort, seeking medical guidance is key to stopping the pain cycle. With comprehensive treatment and healthy lifestyle changes, most patients achieve significant improvement. Above all, staying positive and proactive provides the best chance for effectively managing stubborn neck pain.