If you work on a laptop all day or spend hours texting on your phone (which, to be honest, is all of us these days!), you’re probably no stranger to uncomfortable neck pain. Your smartphone may not be the only problem, though. Poor posture and even stress can bring on pain around the neck region.
Here’s a look at what could be causing your neck pain plus how to treat it at home with stretches and more. You’ll also learn how to tell when it’s a more serious injury that requires a visit to the doctor.
What causes neck pain?
You’re probably reading this article on your phone or a tablet, so do a quick posture check. Is your neck pointing downward? Chronically positioning your neck in this way is leading to strain, explains Karena Wu, P.T., owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy.
“Looking down at your phone or tablet puts the body into the forward head posture, which strains the muscles on the back of the neck and causes pain,” she says. “People hold the gadgets in their hands around waist height, and that leads to the head being tilted forward and down to almost perpendicular to their torso. That increased angle in the neck severely over-stretches the neck muscles on the back, which is why you feel pain.”
If you’ve faced stress at work or at home lately, you may feel it in your neck, says Kellen Scantlebury, P.T., owner of Fit Club in New York City. “Stress can lead to neck pain and can also lead to headaches,” he explains. “Tension headaches are characterized by the tightness of the muscles of the neck and head. This tension is usually brought on by stress. Stress from work, stress from your partner, stress from anywhere can lead to these types of headaches.”
Neck Pain From Exercise
Of course, it’s possible to seriously injure your neck from working out or playing sports. A herniated disc or whiplash are examples of exercise-induced neck injuries.
But Scantlebury says you’re more likely to experience soreness or strain, not a serious injury, from going to the gym. “Typically [serious neck injuries] will not be because of a workout, unless you are doing your burpees rather aggressively,” he says. He explains that the best way to distinguish between soreness and an injury is to see if you’re still feeling pain after 48 hours. (Of course, if you think you’ve sustained a serious neck injury, you should seek medical help immediately.)
“If your neck is still sore following that 48-hour time frame, you may be suffering from a neck injury,” he says. See your doctor and let them know if you have symptoms such as redness or warmth around your neck or numbness going down to your hands or arms. “If you are suffering these symptoms, there’s a good chance it’s from a herniated disc in your neck.”
Wu adds you’ll likely notice some obvious signs when you’re injured. “Typically a neck injury will present itself as significant difficulty in moving the head around, constant pain … and numbness or tingling in the arms. These muscle spasms, pain, and difficulty at rest can disturb your concentration,” she says. “Tension in the neck is milder to moderate and can be relieved by movements that allow you to continue through your day without completely taking your mind off other things.”
Let your doctor know if you’re experiencing neck pain or think you injured your neck. They may recommend a more serious form of treatment such as medication, physical therapy, or even surgery in extreme cases. If you’re experiencing neck strain from the gym or another reason listed above, these at-home stretches may help.
Stretches to Treat Neck Pain
Wu recommends the following stretches to help alleviate neck pain. She says you can hold the stretches up to 30 seconds in each direction. “You should feel a stretch as the tight muscle tissue elongates, but do not stretch so that it is a strong pain or [it] makes you sore after. You should feel looser and lighter when done,” she notes.
- Bend your head to one side, move it down and forward toward the floor, then bend to the other side.
- Repeat in the opposite direction.
- Note: The movement is a horseshoe “U” shape. Do not bend your head backward because this compresses the spine.
- Bend your head down toward your left ear while your left-hand holds on to the opposite (right) temple, pulling your head closer to your ear with a little overpressure.
- Note: Do not bend your trunk.
- Sit with good upright posture.
- Bring both shoulders forward, up, and back in a circular motion.
- Repeat for a total of 10 times, then do 10 rotations in the opposite direction.
Other Treatment Options
In addition to stretching out, Lyndsay Hirst, a physiotherapist at Your Pilates Physio, says good old heat therapy works wonders for neck pain. “Heat is a great tool to use, and wheat bags work particularly well for neck pain because you can wrap them around the neck,” she says. “Trigger point balls can also be used against a wall to release muscle tension.”
Plus, neck pain may be a great reason to book that massage you’ve been wanting, Wu notes. “A massage helps increase fluid circulation and blood flow to the soft tissues.”