Neck pain: common causes and treatments
A stiff or achy neck is something we all experience from time to time, and it’s usually nothing to worry about.
If your neck pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks, or if it’s very painful or accompanied by other worrying symptoms, you should see your GP. Otherwise, you should be able to manage it at home.
What are the most common causes of neck pain?
The causes of neck pain aren’t always clear, but in most cases the culprit will be a minor sprain or prolonged bad posture. You’re more likely to experience neck pain if you:
- Have slept in an awkward position
- Have bad posture e.g. you sit at a desk in a hunched position
However, you might also develop neck pain as a result of an injury (e.g. whiplash or a fall), a pinched nerve, or general wear and tear as you get older.
Rarely, neck pain might be caused by something more serious like rheumatoid arthritis, an infection or a bone disorder.
Treatments for neck pain
Most neck pain is mild and doesn’t require any medical attention. Instead, you can try the following:
- Taking pain relief e.g. paracetamol, ibuprofen
- Rubbing ibuprofen gel onto your neck
- Putting heat packs or cold packs on your neck
- Sleeping on a low, firm pillow
- Trying neck exercises (see “Neck exercises” section below)
If you don’t want to get a heat pack or cold pack from a pharmacy, you can make one at home using frozen peas or a hot water bottle wrapped in a tea towel. A cold pack should be used for five minutes, three times a day. A heat pack should be used for 20 minutes, two to three times a day.
One important thing to remember is that it’s normally best to keep your neck moving as much as possible. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to wear a collar that keeps your neck locked in one position¹.
If you can manage it, doing some gentle exercises should help your neck heal. You can try:
- Slowly turning your head from one side to the other
- Holding one shoulder and tilting your head to the other side
More detailed guidance can be found at this NHS page.
Treatments for neck pain from a doctor
The NHS advises that you see your GP if:
- Your neck pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks
- You’re worried about the pain or it’s very severe (i.e. normal painkillers aren’t helping)
- You have other symptoms like pins and needles
Your GP might be able to offer some alternative short-term treatments like stronger painkillers or muscle relaxants, or they may want to refer you for physiotherapy. If they’re unsure of the cause of your pain, you might need some tests and scans.
How to prevent neck pain
Neck pain is commonly caused by the way we sleep, sit or stand, which means it’s often preventable!
When you go to bed, make sure that your mattress and pillow are properly supporting your body, neck and head. Your mattress should be firm, and your head should be at the same height as the rest of your body. It’s also a good idea to avoid sleeping on your front and to avoid twisting your neck as you’re going to sleep.
Fixing your posture isn’t always easy but it can make a real difference if you suffer from neck pain. Try to sit more upright with your shoulders and neck pulled back. If you work at a desk and you’re stuck there for long periods, try to avoid keeping your neck in the same position.
For people working from home, it can be helpful to do the following:
- Work at a proper workstation and not in your bed or on the sofa
- Adjust your screen so it’s at the right height to avoid hunching
- Take breaks from your desk and stretch
More guidance about working at a desk safely can be found at this NHS page.