I woke up with neck pain, what should I do next?
Over the course of our lives, most of us will experience an acute episode of neck pain. Possibly caused by sleeping awkwardly, or an odd movement like checking your blind spot too quickly. But many of us do not know what to do next. Regardless of the cause, it is best to see a medical professional for a proper examination of any injury before self-treatment. Still, that is not always possible to do immediately. The following are some simple exercises and drills that you can try at home to help manage the pain and symptoms.
A rolling stone gathers no moss. Motion is lotion. The first step anyone should take is to keep moving. Often, when pain develops, we avoid moving our neck because it hurts! This can cause the joints and muscles to seize and make recovery longer and harder. You should try to move your neck through any tolerable range of motion.
In some cases, the range might be significantly decreased, but it is important to maintain whatever range of motion is tolerable. If your pain increases significantly with motion while seated or standing, you can try and perform your range of motion exercises while lying on your back. Taking gravity out of the equation can often increase the amount of tolerable mobility that you have.
Go through all the different motions that our neck moves in. This includes looking over each shoulder (rotation,) bringing one ear to your shoulder (lateral bend) looking up and down with your head (flexion/extension,) and finally cervical protraction and retraction. With each repetition, go as far as you can tolerate without increasing your symptoms and repeat. You may find your motion will increase with each repetition and each set.
After these range of motion exercises, try to begin activating your neck muscles. This is done easiest when pain is present with what is called “isometric contractions.” An isometric contraction refers to activating a muscle without any motion.
Begin with rotational isometrics. With your hand to the side of your head and try and turn your head into your hand. Use your hand to stop your head from turning but continue to activate the musculature as though you would be looking over your shoulder. Meet the force of your head-turning with your hand. Hold this for 10 seconds. Repeat on both sides.
This same technique can be applied to the lateral bend and flexion/extension ranges of motion. The goal is to activate the muscles that move your head without movement. These types of contractions can not only help build back strength in your injured neck, but they can also help moderate your pain.
Finally, once you have increased your range of motion and then safely activated your cervical musculature, the final group of exercises to try and home for acute neck pain is thoracic mobility.
On some occasions, we may experience too much pain in a certain region to perform exercises. When this occurs, we can work adjacent body regions and have a positive impact on your recovery. The most important adjacent region to work on when you have neck pain is the upper back (thoracic spine.) When the upper back is stiff, restricted or immobile, the neck takes on increased stress. This can not only irritate the pain but in some cases, could be a factor that lead to your current pain. The following are some thoracic mobility exercises that can be used to help unload the cervical spine and manage your neck pain.
Improving Thoracic motion, or even hip motion, can help control your neck pain. Not only is the thoracic spine adjacent to the cervical, their motions are very intertwined. Helping one, can help the other. This is especially important to take advantage of when the neck is simply too sensitive to move much.
Most cases of acute neck pain will resolve within 3-7 days. Some might linger longer, and some can be recurrent as well, or develop into chronic neck pain. These cases will need a professional intervention. Here is a video of me treating a chronic neck pain case. Note how much of what we discussed as self care, is ramped up. Stretching becomes myofascial release or dry needling. Neck movements become manipulation and so on.
If you’re acute neck pain becomes unbearable, or lingers too long, reach out for help. Waiting can make resolution more difficult.