Injured Your Neck? Get Relief With These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises
Learn about some of the most common neck injuries and what you can do to prevent and manage pain, especially with exercises from physical therapists.
If you’ve ever pulled a muscle in your neck or started your day with a crick in your neck, you know just how much neck pain can affect everything you do. Even simple movements like looking over your shoulder can feel uncomfortable when your neck is injured.
Neck pain and injury can be common. About 30% of people report some neck pain each year. The good news: Neck pain usually gets better on its own and at-home care can go a long way toward reducing pain and making your neck strong and resilient, says Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.
Read on to learn more about the most common neck injuries, plus how to recover from and prevent neck pain, especially with exercises and stretches from Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
To understand the most common neck injuries and neck conditions, it helps to get a primer on neck anatomy. Here are the key components:
Cervical discs. These discs are the shock absorber cushions that sit between each of your cervical vertebrae. They absorb impact when you walk or run, so you can do these activities pain free.
Spinal cord. This extends from the base of your skull to your lower back (lumbar spine), and travels through your spinal canal. Nerve roots branch out from the spinal cord to carry messages between your brain and your muscles.
Neck ligaments and muscles. These are strong bands of tissue that act like thick rubber bands. Ligaments, which connect two bones together in your joints, are essential for stabilizing joints and enabling a wide range of motions within the body.
Common Neck Injuries
A neck injury can affect any of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, or bones around your neck. Some of the most common ones include:
Stiff muscles and tendons. “Your muscles can get tight and irritated when you sit or stand in the same position, especially if you’re doing repetitive tasks with your upper body,” explains Dr. Kemp. “Most of us carry stress in our muscles, and we sometimes hike up our shoulders when we’re stressed. This can cause the muscles in the neck to become stiff and have a lot of tension.”
Neck sprain or strain. This might happen if you experience an injury — for example, a fall. A neck strain occurs when you pull a muscle in your neck, while a neck sprain involves stretching one of the neck ligaments.
Pinched nerve. Nerves in the neck can become pinched when they’re pressed on by surrounding tissues. “Tight neck muscles can affect the nerves in your neck, which can send pain down your neck into your arm and even your hand,” explains Dr. Kemp.
Herniated disc. This occurs when the center of one (or more) of the flat, round discs that are located between vertebrae in the cervical spine pushes against its outer ring, which can cause pain. However, it’s common to have herniated discs without any discomfort.
Neck arthritis. More than 85% of people over the age of 60 experience neck arthritis, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. “It’s extremely common, and a normal part of aging as the joints in your neck begin to change,” explains Dr. Kemp.
Whiplash. There are over 1.2 million cases of whiplash in the United States every year. “It occurs when your head suddenly snaps forward, then backward, in a whip-like motion,” explains Dr. Kemp. This causes the muscles and ligaments of your neck to over stretch. You don’t have to be in a car accident to develop whiplash — any high-impact sport, like skiing, snowboarding, football, or boxing can cause it, notes Dr. Kemp.
When to See a Doctor
A neck injury can be scary. In general, you should be okay managing your symptoms at home. If your neck pain is not improving after a few weeks or you are concerned your neck pain is due to something more serious, see a doctor for an evaluation.
See your healthcare provider right away if your neck pain is accompanied by any of the following rare signs or symptoms:
The inability to control your bowel or bladder
Double vision or dizziness
Difficulty swallowing, or speaking
Neck pain due to a trauma, like a big fall or car accident
Loss of sensation or muscle wasting in the hands
Loss of coordination
Treatments for Neck Pain
There are many ways to manage and treat neck pain due to a neck injury. Most of the time, it can be treated at home with conservative measures, says Dr. Kemp. Some of the most common ways to treat neck injury pain include:
Physical therapy. A physical therapist can work with you to strengthen your neck muscles to help reduce pain and improve function. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for neck pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Ice and heat. If you have an acute injury, ice is usually recommended as the initial treatment, says Dr. Kemp. You can place a bag of ice or a bag of frozen veggies across your neck. Place it in a thin dry cloth before you put it on your neck to protect your skin. Apply for 15 to 20 minutes every two to four hours until you start to feel better. Once it’s been 48-72 hours since the injury, you can switch between ice and moist heat (applied for 10 to 15 minutes). This can be a hot shower, a hot bath, a hot water bottle, or a moist towel that’s warmed in the microwave.
Stress management. If you’re stressed or anxious, you can hold that tension in your neck, which can contribute to your symptoms, says Dr. Kemp. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing may help. Consider meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Activity modifications. Modifying how (or how much) you do certain painful activities can be really helpful for calming your neck pain, says Dr. Kemp. If you sit at a desk all day, for example, try to take periodic breaks. Dr. Kemp also recommends adjusting your computer monitor to eye level as an experiment, so you are not constantly looking up or down. It may also be a good idea to use a wheeled backpack or briefcase temporarily, to see if reducing pressure on your upper back and neck muscles can reduce neck pain. When you drive, try using the arm rests to keep your arms supported, which may take some pressure off the neck.
Physical Therapy Tips for Neck Injuries
Even if you haven’t had an injury but have been dealing with persistent neck pain, physical therapy can help to strengthen surrounding neck muscles and prevent future injuries from happening. During physical therapy, you’ll likely work on:
Stretching. After an injury, neck muscles tighten. “It’s a protective mechanism in response to the injury,” says Dr. Kemp. “If you loosen up those neck muscles, you can decrease pulling and strain on your spine, as well as other areas of the body that your neck muscles connect to.” She recommends the seated trapezius stretch (found in the Hinge Health app), as well as the levator stretch. “These help to loosen upper back muscles, which, when they are tight, pull at the area where your neck meets your spine,” explains Dr. Kemp.
Strengthening. Neck strengthening exercises help increase range of motion. Dr. Kemp recommends chin tucks, which strengthen the front of neck muscles. “When we sit for long periods of time, our chin juts forward and stretches out the front muscles of the neck,” says Dr. Kemp. “As a result, the neck muscles at the base of your skull tighten, which can contribute to neck pain and headaches.” Chin tucks help to strengthen and activate the neck flexors in the front of your neck, helping to keep your spine in alignment. Another move Dr. Kemp recommends are scapular, or shoulder blade, squeezes. “When you sit or stand, you use the postural muscles in your upper back, which your neck muscles attach to,” she explains. “When you strengthen those, you decrease stress on the neck.”
Neck Injuries: A Hinge Health Perspective
Moving through neck pain can be scary, and it’s understandable to want to avoid any activities that may cause discomfort. But know this: “Movement is medicine when it comes to neck pain,” says Dr. Kemp.
By taking an active approach to managing your neck pain, you can improve your overall health, prevent future pain flares, and get back to doing what you love.
PT Tip: Be Picky About Pillows
“Many people complain about neck pain disturbing their sleep, so one of the changes you might look to make could be your pillow,” says Dr. Kemp. There is no right or wrong pillow for neck pain. A thick and firm pillow might calm one person's symptoms, while no pillow might feel the most relaxing for another. Dr. Kemp recommends letting your symptoms guide you. "The goal is to find what works best for you." But remember, it may take more than just changing your pillow to get better sleep, including the treatments mentioned above.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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