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Why do I have neck pain and how can I get rid of it?

Woman sitting cross-legged and stretching neck

Here are some things you can do to help ease a stiff, achy neck — and how to prevent it from happening again.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

Say you got sucked into scrolling through videos on your phone with your neck arched forward. Or you slouched for hours over your computer trying to meet a deadline. Perhaps you simply slept in an awkward position. The next thing you know, your neck hurts so much you can barely turn your head enough to back the car out of the driveway.

What’s going on? And what can you do about your literal pain in the neck?

Well, modern life doesn’t help. But your neck should share the blame, too. “Our neck muscles are extremely small and easy to fatigue,” says Humaira Ashraf, MD. She’s a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Jersey City Medical Center in New Jersey.

Neck muscles “have to hold up the weight of the brain and the skull, which can weigh around 10 pounds,” she says. “So if you have bad posture or sit in the wrong position, it’s easy to have a bout of neck pain.”

That makes neck pain strikingly common. “About 95% of people have neck pain at some time in their life, and the other 5% have a bad memory,” jokes Dr. Ashraf.

In some cases, the pain can spread to the shoulders. Or it may cause shooting pains in the back, head or down into the arms. Because the nerves can be affected, the pain can mess with muscle strength and cause a feeling of pins and needles.

Ready to put neck pain (and the not-so-subtle side effects) to bed? Here’s what you need to know.

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What causes neck pain?

“A lot of neck pain is caused by poor posture,” says Dr. Ashraf.

That’s because posture plays a big role in how hard your neck muscles have to work. Even something as minor as reading in bed or having a tense jaw all day can cause excess strain on your neck’s small, flexible muscles.

The other common culprit is just plain old wear and tear as we age. Osteoarthritis can break down the cushion between our bones. Our body responds by forming bone spurs that affect motion and bring on pain. This can happen to any joint in the body, including the spine, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Other causes can include herniated discs, neck injuries (such as whiplash from a car crash) or chronic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Related reading: How to find relief for stiff and achy joints.

When should I see a doctor?

If your neck has been hurting for a couple of days, sit tight. Most neck pain improves on its own. But if the pain sticks around for 2 weeks or longer, have it checked by your health care provider, Dr. Ashraf says.

Reach out to your doctor right away if the pain comes with any of the following symptoms, because they could signal a more serious condition:

  • Tingling or difficulty moving your arms or fingers
  • A bad headache accompanied by nausea, vomiting or dizziness
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Unexplained weight loss, fever or chills

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How is neck pain treated?

It depends on what’s causing your neck pain. At-home treatments may include good old ice and heat. According to the Cleveland Clinic, using ice on your neck for the first 2 or 3 days can help reduce inflammation. After that, applying heat with a warm compress or heating pad can help relax the muscles in your neck. The Mayo Clinic recommends applying ice or heat for up to 20 minutes several times a day.

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) can help ease that initial pain, too. (Did you know you can find deals on pain relievers at the Optum Store?)

But if it’s a chronic issue, your doctor may recommend other treatments. One option is physical therapy. “It can be very helpful at relieving neck pain,” Dr. Ashraf says. And don’t think that at-home exercises will take up a huge chunk of time. “Typically, the exercises only take about 10 minutes twice a day.”

What about special neck pillows? For most people, they’re probably not necessary, Dr. Ashraf says. You just need a pillow that gives you support and has contact with the area between your ear and your upper shoulder, she says.

What can you do to prevent neck pain?

Check your posture often, take breaks to get up and move around during the day, and strengthen your neck and shoulders.

When seated at your desk, make sure you’re positioned correctly, Dr. Ashraf says. “Your knees and hips should be bent at a 90-degree angle, your feet should touch the floor and your arms should be softly bent at the elbows,” she says. “And your eyes, when you look straight ahead, should be looking at the upper third of your monitor when you sit in front of it.”

Some studies show that exercises to strengthen your neck and shoulders not only can relieve chronic neck pain, but they can also improve your range of movement. A 2020 review found that yoga, Pilates and tai chi were all effective.

When you need relief now, there are some simple exercises you can do just about anywhere, Dr. Ashraf says. Try chin tucks or shoulder rolls. Or turn your head in one direction, hold the stretch, and then turn your head in the other direction and hold the stretch again.

Neck pain stinks. But you can do a lot to prevent it from happening in the first place. When in doubt, bring your concerns to your doctor. They’ll help you root out the cause — and find the best way to get relief.

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Additional sources
Possible causes of neck pain: Mayo Clinic
2020 review of neck pain treatments: British Journal of Sports Medicine (2020). “Comparative effectiveness of physical exercise interventions for chronic non-specific neck pain: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 randomized controlled trials