Neck pain: symptoms and remedies for quick pain relief

dolore cervicale - Fisioterapista pratica massaggio al collo di una ragazza

Neck pain is one of the most common musculo-skeletal disorders that lead us to seek advice from a doctor or physiotherapist. There are a variety of causes, but links between excessively sedentary lifestyles and neck pain has been well-known for some time as one of the main risk factors.
But what are the first warning signs and above all, are there any quick solutions to relieve the pain due to neck disorders? Let’s find out together.

Neck: some anatomy notes

The Cervical spine, or more commonly the C-spine, is a section of the spinal column made up of seven vertebrae, which connect the skull to the spinal section of the vertebral column. C-spine vertebrae are naturally laid out in a curved formation with anterior convexity (cervical lordosis) and enable a large range of head movements: rotation, bending, extension, lateral flexion, as well as combined movements of these.

Actually, the anatomical area that is generally identified as the “C-spine zone” does not only contain the vertebrae but also ligaments, muscles, tendons and the relative nervous structures. This is a particularly complex point because on the one hand vertebrae, muscles, ligaments and tendons are responsible for the stability and mobility of the neck, while the cervical nervous structures contain the first eight spinal nerves, as well as the first section of the bone marrow.

Neck pain: symptoms and risk factors

Not simply neck aches and pains. When we talk of “neck pain” or rather more appropriately “pain due to the C-spine”, symptoms are many and vary greatly, depending on the level and structures involved.
This is a list of the most common symptoms of neck pain:

  • Upper C-spine, from the occipital bone to vertebra C3: pain in the nape area, cervicogenic headache (typical cervical headache), vertigo and dizziness, tinnitus, pain in the neck through to the upper fascia of the trapezius.
  • Middle and Lower C-spine, cervical vertebrae from C3 to C7: pain in the neck and shoulders, pain in trapezius, pain between shoulder blades, fascia pain along the left or right arm, tingling/numbness (or altered sensitivity) of upper limbs, muscle weakness, tingling, burning or sensation of electric shocks.

These are some of the warning signs of inflamed neck pain or possible conditions of cervical arthrosis, but it is important to consider that these symptoms vary from person to person.

The risk factors for developing neck pain also vary greatly. Medical literature shows that women tend to suffer more frequently from problems related to the C-spine. But it is not only a question of gender: in general, all those who for work purposes are forced to remain seated for many hours – which unfortunately means most of us – or those who have to repeatedly bend or turn their torso are all particularly susceptible to this problem. Stress, anxiety and a lack of physical activity are also often associated with neck pain.

Without considering specific clinical conditions, such as the outcome of traumas for instance the so-called whiplash, the causes of neck pain are still not clear.
To read more details on some of the most frequent clinical cases, take a look at our article on cervical spine inflammation.

Remedies for neck pain: what are the most effective treatments?

Anti-inflammatory medication or muscle relaxants

The most common medication prescribed by doctors are those aimed at reducing inflammation (NSAIDS) or reducing muscle contracture (muscle relaxants). However, it should be clear that this medication treats purely the symptoms, i.e. are used for relief of the symptoms, but cannot be considered a cure for neck pain. While they are undoubtedly useful in the acute inflammation phases, they should never be taken “as is” and should be accompanied by a medical and/or physiotherapy/postural assessment to identify the cause of the pain.

Physical Therapy

The physiotherapy treatment depends on the cause identified and each programme should be developed by the physiotherapist on the basis of medical assessments made by the specialists for each individual patient. It may involve, for example:

  • Muscle stretching and/or strengthening exercises;
  • Passive mobilisation or joint manipulation techniques;
  • Postural re-education exercises;
  • Instrument-assisted therapy such as TECAR;
  • Stress and anxiety management techniques.

Quick remedies

In the absence of a physiotherapist, there are a number of measures you can take to attempt to quickly reduce neck pain. As in the case of medication, these are quick remedies that do not act on the cause of pain but can contribute to pain relief. For example:

  • Hot water bottle/hot shower to reduce muscle contractures;
  • Slow head rotations combined with breathing;
  • Light muscle stretching;
  • Reduction of any mental stress by diaphragmatic breathing exercises or meditation techniques;
  • Use a soft collar to enable muscles to relax.

More details: the link between sedentary work and neck pain

As mentioned above, occupational conditions play an essential role as a risk factor in developing neck pain. In fact, prolonged maintenance of the anterior flexion position of the C-spine (bending the head forwards) can lead to an overload of discal structures, muscles or ligaments in the neck. This condition can worsen when combined with other factors such as stress, anxiety, or pre-existing problems such as a stiff neck, muscle weakness or protrusions.

The essential point is that our body is not designed to stay seated for long intervals in front of a computer, but if we are forced to do so for work, there are a number of measures we can take:

  • Take care of ergonomics: try to sit with the back straight and with the feet firmly on the ground. The PC screen should be positioned straight ahead of the face, with forearms resting on the desk and/or armrests of the chair while working at the keyboard.
  • Do some muscle relaxation exercises: lay your hands on the thighs and take some deep breaths around every 30 minutes. Each time you exhale, imagine lifting and lowering the shoulders around 10 times. Then rotate your head slowly, breathing out on each turn, for around 2 minutes.
  • Change position frequently: around every hour, get up, stretch up and down and walk around for a few minutes.
  • Use an ergonomic mouse: to avoid stress on the upper limb, which can then lead to pain in the shoulder or neck, a vertical ergonomic mouse can be helpful.