Whether you are suffering from simple muscular tension, whiplash or something worse, neck pain can severely limit your daily activities and enjoyment of life. Because the neck has so many muscles and must work to hold the head erect, it is especially susceptible to injury and soreness. Neck pain can limit your range of motion, preventing you from turning your head completely, and can radiate to other parts of the body.
Muscle strain causes the most common type of neck pain when stretching. Tilting your head from side to side or rotating it on its axis stretches muscles that may have contracted due to overuse or poor posture. Hunching over a computer or long hours behind the wheel can fatigue muscles and cause pain when you stretch. Overusing neck muscles repeatedly can cause chronic pain and stiffness.
A sudden, severe movement that causes the head to jerk forward and back can injure delicate soft tissue in the neck. Commonly known as whiplash, this injury can produce severe, debilitating pain, especially in the back and sides of the neck. Even getting up out of bed can be agonizing.
Conditions that usually occur with age can produce pain in your neck. Osteoarthritis, nerve compression and disk degeneration may begin with just minor aches and progress to chronic pain unless treated.
Rare but serious diseases, such as meningitis and cancer, can cause neck pain, but are usually accompanied by other symptoms as well.
The most common types of neck pain respond well to conservative treatment. Rest your neck periodically if you maintain the same position for long periods. Try over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and acetaminophen for short-term pain relief. Gently stretch your neck by lowering your head to one shoulder as far as your pain will allow, holding for 30 seconds then alternating sides. Apply cold, such as an ice pack, for 20 minutes. Follow that with heat if it helps your pain.
If your pain does not subside after a few days of home treatment, or if it is so severe that you cannot move your head, see a doctor. He may recommend you see a physical therapist who can recommend gentle stretching exercises to keep your muscles supple. In extreme cases, your doctor may recommend the short-term use of a neck brace and medication such as muscle relaxants or corticosteroid injections. If your neck pain is accompanied by fever, vomiting, or severe headache, see your doctor immediately.
Most neck pain is caused by poor posture. Try to keep your head balanced over your spine; take frequent breaks; adjust your chair, desk or computer so the monitor is at eye level; and avoid sleeping on your stomach. Exercises that elongate the chest muscle and strengthen the back muscles can also help to prevent neck pain.