Did you know that two out of three of us will experience neck pain at some point in our lives? While neck pain is a common problem, it can sometimes be hard to determine where the pain is coming from. Sometimes pain in one area can travel to another part of the body. For example, if your pain is originating in your back or neck, it can sometimes also be felt in other areas of the body. As pain progresses, it can travel further from where it is rooted. Fortunately physiotherapy can help you manage your pain, and in many cases, eliminate it.
Most episodes of neck pain are caused by poor posture, combined with the wearing out or stresses of the structures of the neck, which can be related to ageing or overuse. Neck pain may also come from your shoulder, jaw, head, upper back or upper arms.
Common causes of neck pain
Muscle tension and strains usually relate to prolonged physical activity or overuse such as sitting at a computer for extended periods. For example, sitting for long periods in a slouched position usually causes the muscles in the front of our neck to become lengthened and weak, and the muscles at the back of our neck to become shortened and tight, this alters our movement patterning and finally our biomechanics causing stresses and strains to muscles and joints.
Your neck joints, just like the other joints in your body, tend to wear down with age. Osteoarthritis is a condition involving changes to the bones, discs, and joints of the neck. With age, the discs of the cervical spine gradually break down, lose fluid, and become stiffer. As a result of the degeneration of discs and other cartilage, spurs or abnormal bone growths called osteophytes may form on the bones in the neck. The bony growths can cause localised pain in the neck or arm related to nerve compression.
A pinched nerve occurs when too much pressure is applied to a nerve by surrounding tissues, such as bones, discs, muscles or tendons. This pressure disrupts the nerve’s function, causing pain, tingling, numbness or weakness.
Whiplash is a sudden forward and backward injury to the soft tissues of the neck, this injury is most common following a rear impact in car accidents
The benefits of exercise for neck pain
Physiotherapy for neck pain is focused on the structures that support the spine. This includes the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and joints. Your treatment will typically include exercises to manage or relieve your pain altogether. In some cases, hydrotherapy may be recommended, as the buoyancy of water takes pressure off of the cervical and lumbar spine while you’re performing the exercises.
Below are some neck exercises you can try at home
Side bending neck stretch
Slowly bend the head to the right side, bringing your ear close to the shoulder. You can use your hand to pull your head further into the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Bring your head back to the starting position. Do both sides. Repeat 8-10 times on each side each day.
Lying back retraction
Lying on your back with your head in a neutral position and roll the chin toward the front of the neck. Hold for 5 seconds. You should feel a stretch down the middle part of the back of your neck and feel muscle activation in the front of the neck (deep flexor neck muscles). Repeat 8-10 times every day.
Lifting head lying back
Lying on your back, roll the chin toward the front of the neck and then continue to roll the neck and head off the floor while maintaining a tucked chin position. Adding the lift of the head is more challenging than the previous exercise. You should feel the muscles at the front of your neck working. You should hold for 5 seconds before returning slowly to your starting position. Repeat 8-10 times each day. If you are unable to maintain the head position you can help with your hand.
Lifting head lying prone
Lying face down on a firm surface, lift your head back off the floor keeping your neck straight. Make sure it is pain-free and then hold for 5 seconds before slowly returning to the initial position. You should feel muscle recruitment of the posterior region of the neck (deep extensor neck muscles). Repeat 8-10 times every day.
The strongest evidence for managing neck pain is for exercise. As physiotherapists we have a detailed understanding of the neck, related pain mechanisms and exercise prescription which makes us well placed to be the experts to help you return to normal function.
Most neck pain is associated with poor posture combined with overuse problems. To help prevent neck pain try the exercises that we have recommended. The exercises and the tips can be done to help prevent your neck from getting stiff and painful or help you recover if you have developed some neck pain.
You can also try making some simple changes in your daily routine that may help like for example: Take frequent breaks or change positions, use good posture, adjust your workplace to be in a more ergonomic position, avoid smoking as it is at higher risk of developing neck pain, avoid carrying/lifting heavy bags/things as the weight can strain your neck, exercise regularly, eat and drink healthy and maintain a healthy weight.