Stiff neck causes, treatments

Stiffness in the neck creating pain and loss of mobility is such a common complaint in the workplace that many people come to consider it a normal event.

Typically there is a “pulling” or “pinching” pain when moving the neck, usually when turning from side to side. There may also be a headache, shoulder pain, and pain into the arm.

The stiffness is often episodic, with each episode lasting anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.  

Often people don’t realise how much mobility they have lost until they attempt to look over their shoulder while driving and find they must turn their whole body to look.

While there are few serious medical conditions that can cause a stiff neck, most cases respond very favourably to conservative treatment.

The anatomy of the cervical spine allows an amazing balance between protecting the delicate spinal cord, supporting the head, and allowing mobility of the neck. However, by allowing such a high degree of mobility it creates the opportunity for injury.

One of the most commonly injured muscles in the neck is one most people don’t even realise they have. The Levator Scapula is a muscle that connects the top of the shoulder blade to the side of the neck and may be strained by a wide variety of activities.  

People will often present after sleeping in an odd position, or on a pillow with poor support. Sports that require repetitive head turning such as swimming can lead to problems in the neck with the Levator Scapula. Poor posture, such as slouching while viewing the computer monitor can further stress the Levator Scapula muscle. The work place can lead to injury by activities as common as cradling a phone between the neck and shoulder.

Most minor injuries of the neck heal quickly.  

While waiting for the pain and stiffness to reduce, there are many self-care treatments that can help:

Applying ice or cold packs: The cold helps reduce swelling and pain in the area of injury. The ice or cold pack should be applied in 20-minute intervals during the initial 24 hours.

Applying heat: The heat helps bring nutrient-rich blood flow to the area to stimulate a healing response. Some people prefer moist heat, such as from a hot bath or shower.

Over-the-counter medications: Taking  anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) or naproxen (e.g. Aleve), will reduce the inflammation, which in turn will help reduce the pain. One can also take pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), which reduces the perception of pain.

Massage: A gentle massage will to stimulate blood flow in the area, which helps the injury to heal.

Most episodes of a stiff neck will resolve after a day or two. On those occasions that the pain is more severe, fails to improve, or is accompanied by arm symptoms a visit to a health professional is advisable.  

Immediate attention is recommended if neck stiffness is noted after a traumatic injury or high fever.

Dr. Jemal Khan is a chiropractor based in the Cayman Islands.

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