Overview

Neck pain is a common problem – 2 out of 3 of us will experience it at some point. It’s not usually serious and most often eases on its own or with simple advice and neck exercises. Neck pain is often caused by a simple muscle strain or tension. Other causes include injury, such as whiplash, or gradual changes to the joints due to natural ageing.

As more and more people spend their working day at a computer or sat in an office, the neck and shoulder muscles can become stiff or overused.

With the right guidance and support, most people with neck pain will recover without the need for medical help. Understanding neck pain and what you can do to help yourself get better is an essential part of your recovery.

Type Of Neck Pain

Have you have been experiencing neck pain for less than 6 weeks? If yes, then you are suffering with acute back pain.

This is a recent onset of pain which might be caused by a sprain or strain of the neck although more commonly it starts for no obvious reason without sustaining any specific injury to your neck. Even a period of stress or tiredness can cause pain and stiffness along with muscle tension across the neck and shoulders.

The pain can come on suddenly or over a few days or weeks and can range from a mild pain or ache to quite severe pain, which can be extremely distressing and can sometimes stop you carrying out your everyday activities.

Despite having acute neck pain, it is essential that you keep the neck moving from day one, even if you might have to temporarily do a little bit less than usual initially, and then gradually build up to return to your normal activates. Heat can also help to relax the neck muscles to allow slightly more movement too.

For more help with improving acute neck pain, please see other sections.

Have you been experiencing neck pain for more than 3 months? If yes, then you are suffering with persistent, also known as chronic, neck pain.

This type of neck pain will initially start like Acute Neck Pain although the pain continues even after the original cause of neck pain has healed. However, prolonged slouched sitting postures at home and work can still play a part. Check out these useful postural exercises to practice every day to help neck pain.

The pain you feel is just as real and unpleasant although it is much less to do with any ongoing tissue damage in the neck, but more due to an over sensitive protective system that continues to produce pain in your neck and sometimes the arms too.

This pain protective system can be influenced by multiple things including thoughts, feelings and beliefs as well as confidence to move the neck again.

Unfortunately, there are several unhelpful and incorrect messages given about neck pain which can actually make the problem worse. Click on the FAQ section to bust some myths about neck pain and start trusting your neck again.

Although persistent neck pain can be more complex, it can still be improved through understanding pain better and changing the way to approach it.

For more help with improving Persistent Neck Pain, please see other sections.

If you’re feeling pain in your neck that radiates down your arm, you may have Cervical Radiculopathy.
This is an umbrella term for any condition that is causing irritation of the nerves in the neck region and is the upper body equivalent to sciatica. Despite what you’re told and read, nerves are very rarely ‘trapped’. Pain will usually be worse in the arm than in the neck and you may also have some tingling, pins and needles or numbness in the arm and hand.
Cervical radiculopathy only happens in less than 5% of neck pain cases and usually gets better within 4 to 6 weeks but can last longer. The reasons for the pain lasting longer than this could be related to your thoughts and feelings about the problem and how you are approaching it so complete the section ‘Is My Neck Pain Likely To Persist?’ and visit the page on ‘Persistent Pain’ for more details if necessary.
However, there are some rare cases where it might be related to a specific structure in the neck and you may need to see a healthcare professional if symptoms are not improving despite this self help advice. Some people with cervical radiculopathy may require prescribed medication to help with nerve pain.
The most common cause of whiplash is due to a road traffic accident although any injury sustained from a sudden fast movement of the neck in one direction and then another can cause whiplash symptoms.
The common symptoms experienced are pain in the neck, shoulders and sometimes back with reduced movement in your neck. Headaches and temporary pins and needles in our arms can also develop.
Most whiplash injuries do not cause any lasting damage and symptoms usually improve over a few weeks or months although it is essential that you start moving your neck as early as possible despite pain and stiffness initially to recover quicker.
See the advice leaflet for Whiplash Associated Disorder for further help and guidance on exercises for you to try.
Visit here for more information on whiplash.

Is my neck pain likely to persist?

Take Our One Minute Test

This quick questionnaire can help you identify how likely your pain is to persist over the next 6 months and whether you may need some extra support.  It has been developed by a team of experts from Keele University – Click here for more information about the tool.

The tool has been shown to be very useful for people with common Musculoskeletal pain to profile individual risk of having a poor recovery and to use as a guide in conjunction with support from a healthcare professional if necessary.

Try out the questionnaire for yourself to see how you score and to get further help and advice. It will also be useful to retake the questionnaire after you have learned more key facts about your pain, either from this website or from a healthcare professional, to re-assess in time whether your neck pain problem is improving.

For question 1 – 9, think about just the last two weeks:
Pain intensity
1. On average, how intense was your pain? [where 0 is “no pain”, 10 is “pain as bad as it could be”]











Select one of the options for each question below Yes No
2. Do you often feel unsure about how to manage your pain condition?
3. Over the last 2 weeks, have you been bothered a lot by your pain?
4. Have you only been able to walk short distances because of your pain?
5. Have you had troublesome joint or muscle pain in more than one part of your body?
6. Do you think your condition will last a long time?
7. Do you have other important health problems?
8. Has a pain made you feel down or depressed in the last two weeks?
9. Do you feel it is unsafe for a person with a condition like yours to be physically active?
10. Have you had your current pain problem for 6 months or more?

 

High Risk

This test suggests you have some serious concerns about how well your neck will recover. This may be related to feeling low and anxious generally or by being afraid that you might have done something serious to your neck.

It might help to discuss your concerns with a doctor or physiotherapist if things are still not improving over the next few weeks after following the advice and exercise in the Self Help section.

Also, visit the section on Persistent Pain for more information and support.

99 times out of 100 your neck pain is not related to a serious condition. Allowing yourself to move normally, without too much worry, will help your neck to return to normal. Painkillers often help you to move normally, while your neck recovers.

If you are feeling low or anxious, whether this I related to your neck pain or not, and you would like further help and support, visit NHS website – Health in Mind.

Medium Risk

This test suggests you may have some doubts about how well your neck will recover.

This may be related to feeling low and anxious generally or by being afraid that you might have done something serious to your neck.

It might help to discuss your concerns with a doctor or physiotherapist if things are still not improving over the next few weeks after following the advice and exercise in the Self Help section.

99 times out of 100 your neck pain is not related to a serious condition. Allowing yourself to move normally, without too much worry, will help your neck to return to normal. Painkillers can help you to move normally, while your neck recovers.

You might also want to access the Essex Lifestyle Service for further support and help on making healthy lifestyle choices and live healthier lives as this could be contributing to your neck pain.

Low Risk

Congratulations! You most likely have the right ideas about your neck pain, and feel in control of how you manage your recovery.

We all know an episode of neck pain is very annoying, and at times extremely painful. Carrying on as normal and continuing to move your neck allows the quickest recovery, and stops your neck stiffening up.

Keep going as you are, although check out this link for more information and advice to get better even quicker.

You might also want to access the Essex Lifestyle Service for further support and help on making healthy lifestyle choices and live healthier lives as this could be contributing to your neck pain.

Please select all options.

Self Help

Evidence has shown that people who understand their Musculoskeletal health problem and take an active involvement to help themselves have a much better outcome.

Here are some really helpful leaflets, videos, exercises and useful links to other websitesthat have been approved by our physiotherapists so that you can start getting better with your neck pain today!

Leaflets

Whiplash Injury
Source: Versus Arthritis
Source: Chartered Society Of Physiotherapy

Videos

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Watch this video for simple neck exercises to help reduce neck pain and stiffness
Source: Patient (https://patient.info/)

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Watch this video for simple postural exercises to help reduce neck pain
Source: Patient (https://patient.info/)

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Exercises

A booklet on guided management of your neck pain including common types, treatments, prevention and neck exercises for pain, mobility and strength.

Source: Healthshare Clinical Services

Useful links

Further Support

If your neck pain is still not improving despite following the advice and guidance provided on the website for up to 6 weeks and you score a ‘Medium’ or ‘High Risk’ when completing the ‘Is my neck pain likely to persist?’, you may require further help and support from the Physiotherapy Outpatients Service. Please see your GP if you wish to be referred or discuss the management of your neck problem further.

Remember that most causes of neck pain are not due to anything serious, although there are rare cases where you would need to seek urgent medical help. See your GP as soon as possible if you have any of the following symptoms that have started around the same time as your neck pain:

  • Numbness, pins and needles or weakness in one or both arms that’s getting worse
  • Recent problems with your balance or walking
  • Blurred vision, ringing in your ears or dizziness for longer than 48 hours
  • Headaches unlike ones before
  • Previous history of cancer

Alternatively, contact NHS 111 for further advice if you have any of the symptoms above.

FAQs

No - Scientific studies now indicate prolonged rest and avoidance of activity for people with neck pain actually leads to higher levels of pain, greater disability, poorer recovery and longer absence from work.
In the first few days of a new episode of neck pain, avoiding aggravating activities may help to relieve pain. However, staying as active as possible and returning to all usual activities gradually is actually important in aiding recovery – this includes staying in work where possible.
While it is normal to move differently and more slowly in the first few days of having neck pain, this altered movement can be unhealthy if continued in the long-term.
You rarely need a scan and it can do more harm than good. This is because seeing perfectly normal changes to their spine related to age which are not predictive of neck pain can cause people to avoid the activities they should be doing to get better, such as exercise and movement in general.
Studies have shown that a scan does not show the exact reason for neck pain in 95% of cases and will not guide further management.
However, there are extremely rare cases of neck pain where immediate medical advice and need for scanning may be required. See Further Support section for the list of symptoms associated with neck pain that might require you to see you GP sooner.
Yes, absolutely! Exercise and activity reduces and prevents neck pain. Exercise is shown to be very helpful for tackling neck pain and is also the most effective strategy to prevent future episodes. Start slowly and build up both the amount and intensity of what you do and don’t worry if it’s sore to begin with – you won’t be damaging your neck. No one type of exercise is proven to be more effective than others so just pick an exercise you enjoy, that you can afford to maintain in the long-term and that fits in with your daily schedule.
Painkillers may be necessary for a short period if neck pain is severe although this will not speed up your recovery.
They should only be used in conjunction with other measures, such as exercise, and even then just as a short-term option as they can bring side effects.
Exercise, which is safer and cheaper, is considered the preferred option. Movement is the best medicine for neck pain!
Yes - Prolonged sitting, whether at work or at home, can certainly contribute to neck pain and stiffness persisting. Slouched sitting postures or when you’re continually looking down can lead to greater muscle tension in the neck and shoulder region.
It is essential that you regularly change your position, move your neck in different directions and get up from your desk if at work at frequent intervals throughout the day. So make sure you set yourself a reminder to get up and move around every hour if you’re sitting at work all day.
Check out this video for ideas on postural exercises for neck pain.
Neck collars are no longer recommended for neck pain or injury unless you’ve been told to wear one by a specialist for a specific reason as they have been shown to actually slow recovery. It’s better to keep you neck moving despite some pain initially to avoid any lasting problems and get back to normal as soon as possible.
Muscles and joints in the neck can stiffen up very quickly if they are being kept still so avoid using a collar and get the neck moving again straight away. Remember - Motion is lotion!