Avoiding a pain in the neck

by Karen Bowen

As a driver, good neck mobility could help avoid accidents. Freely moving your head optimizes your mirror usage and minimizes blind spots. But, if you are like more than two-thirds of North Americans, you occasionally have neck pain that is severe enough to interfere with your head movement and your safety.

Your head rests on a flexible, supportive structure formed by the joints in your upper back and the lower joints in your neck.

Its flexibility to allow a broad range of head movement also makes your neck vulnerable to pain and injury in several ways.

Overuse can trigger neck muscle strain: while sitting stationary driving your rig or working on your computer for long periods of time; while cradling your phone between your shoulder and ear; while reading in bed with little head support; while grinding your teeth; while carrying a heavy pack using one shoulder strap; while sleeping on your stomach with improper support; and/or while maintaining poor posture.

Injury can also cause neck pain. Whiplash, accidents, falls and any other activity that forces your head to move quickly in one direction and then back again can damage the soft tissue in your neck.   

Bone conditions also lead to neck pain, including: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, where the cartilage between the joints breaks down, allowing the unprotected bone edges to painfully rub together; herniated discs, where the discs between the vertebrae move out of position, putting pressure on the spinal nerves; bone spurs, where bony projections form along the edges of vertebrae, interfering with the joint’s range of motion and irritating nerves; spinal stenosis, where the open spaces in the spine become narrowed, putting pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves travelling through your spine to your arms and legs; and/or cervical spondylosis, age-related deterioration of the spinal discs in your neck.

Other medical conditions can also be responsible, like: ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that can cause some vertebrae to fuse together, leading to a permanent, hunched-forward posture; meningitis, a serious inflammation of the membranes (meninges) surrounding your brain and spinal cord, causing a stiff neck, along with headache and fever; tension headache, leading to tense neck muscles and stiffness; and/or TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder, where the joint connecting the jaw to the skull becomes displaced.

Usually, neck pain caused by muscle tension or strain doesn’t require much treatment and will resolve itself within a few days. However, when the pain lasts longer than a few weeks, try some self-care activities like applying cold/heat, stretching, massage, and/or exercising for relief.   

To use cold or heat, apply an ice pack (or bag of frozen vegetables) to your neck for 15 minutes, three or more times a day to reduce the blood flow and swelling. Alternatively, take a daily hot shower or bath to relax the muscles.

For stretching, gently stretch your neck muscles by nodding your head up and down and turning your head from side to side.

When massaging, lightly knead the tender neck areas to help reduce muscle spasm. Take every opportunity to be active and exercise, by shifting positions, getting out of your rig, stretching and walking. As well, maintain a proper sitting posture by adjusting your seat position and using an appropriate back support.  No matter how painful, neck pain is very rarely a symptom of something serious.

However, seek medical care if your pain gets worse in spite of your self-care or persists after several weeks of self-care; if your neck pain corresponds with numbness or weakness in your arms or hands; if you also have pain shooting into your shoulder and down your arm; if you have weakness in your legs and have trouble walking; if you also have a headache, high fever and numbness or tingling in your hands or feet; and/or if your pain was caused by a fall, an accident, or a heavy object landing on your head.

When a doctor’s care is required, your treatment plan may include a prescribed pain medicine and/or muscle relaxants; physical therapy to reinforce correct posture and alignment, neck strengthening exercises to avoid further injury; TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) to deliver tiny electrical impulses through the skin that relieve pain; traction to gently stretch your neck with weights, pulleys and/or an air bladder and relieve pain; and/or limited immobilization with a soft neck-collar brace to support the neck and reduce the pressure on your neck’s internal structures.

Your doctor may also recommend corticosteroid or lidocaine injections to reduce pain; surgery to relieve spinal cord or nerve root compression; OTC (over-the-counter) pain relief like naproxen sodium (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, etc.), and acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.); acupuncture; massage therapy; and/or, chiropractic care.

Be sure to remain healthy. Avoid injuries, stay active, maintain proper posture, and follow a healthy diet. Why risk your neck?


Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at karen_bowen@yahoo.com.

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  • Maintaining correct posture is always essential. Uneven and uncomfortable posture while working leads to sever injuries and pains, sometimes leads to surgeries.