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Neck pain is a common occurrence in all individuals. It can range from minor sprains to major problems such as tears causing damage to soft tissues in the neck.

Neck problems may be a sign of some other underlying health problem

Overuse or injury can cause neck problems apart from everyday wear and tear. These problems can occur due to sprains or strains during involvement in recreational events, work-related responsibilities, or doing errands at home. 

The neck pain  can be felt as sharp and severe pain or stiffness or as a kink. The nature of neck pain is such that it spreads to adjoining areas like shoulders, arms or back. The pain can start from base of the skull and extend to the shoulders. 

Even though most of the neck problems occur due to strain in the muscles and ligaments, serious disease conditions can also lead to neck problems. Some of the serious disease conditions include meningitis, fibromyalgia, herniated disc, ruptured disc, and arthritis.

  • Arthritis – can lead to a pinched nerve leading to numbness in arm or hand or a tingling feeling along the arm in addition to neck pain
  • Meningitis – inflammation occurring in spinal cord and brain due to infections. This can lead to neck stiffness severe enough to make it  impossible to bend the neck
  • Flu – can also cause neck pain but, severe stiffness is not seen
  • Heart attacks – can also sometimes lead to neck pain
  • Stress – and tension can also cause tightness in neck muscle
  • Torticollis is another condition caused by in-born (congenital) defects or injury characterized by severe contraction of neck muscle causing titling of neck to one side
  • Cervical spondylosis: occurs mostly due to degeneration of the vertebral disc causing a pinched nerve which gives rise to neck pain

Why does neck stiffness occur?

Neck stiffness occurs due to rigidity or tightness in the neck muscles.  The stiffness can be mild causing a slight limitation in neck movement or can be very severe leading to inability to bend or move the neck sideways. The causes of neck stiffness can be categorized as below:

Physical conditions causing neck stiffness

  • Improper sleeping posture
  • Wrong type of pillow use

Infectious conditions

  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis
  • Polio as well as flu can cause stiff neck

Bone and joint abnormalities

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cervical arthritis
  • Disc and spinal problems
  • Ankylosing spondylitis

Congenital disorders:

  • Torticollis

Neck stiffness can be acute or chronic based on the duration of the symptoms.

Treatment of neck problems

Diagnosis of stiff neck and other problems based on physical examination and imaging techniques such as X rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scan.

Ice packs can be used for reducing the inflammation and bed rest during the initial phase is also proven to be beneficial. Neck/cervical collar can be used for relieving acute neck stiffness and arm pain as it supports the head and corrects faults in posture. It should be noted that these collars should not be worn for a long time since they tend to weaken the neck muscles.

In case of neck problems due to infectious causes, appropriate antibiotics and antiviral agents are advised to treat the underlying infection. Medications such as steroids are advised to decrease inflammation. Pain killers like Aspirin and non steroidal anti inflammatory agents can also be taken over the counter. Neck massage may be helpful in reliving the kinks in the neck muscles and provide pain relief. Surgery or traction may be advised to relieve pressure on the neck in certain severe cases. In case of severe trauma or loss of sensations or tingling in the arms, medical attention should be sought without delay.

Rehabilitation exercises

These exercises are aimed at relieving the stress on the neck muscles and other associated structures. The rehabilitation exercises also improve the flexibility of the neck muscles and strengthen them to prevent the recurrence or progression of neck pain.

Cervical stretching and range of motion exercises

People suffering from stiff neck or pinched nerve will benefit from stretching exercises as these offer pain relief. Stretching exercises further will improve flexibility and mobility of the neck.  Range of neck movement is increased by doing stretching exercises and it also ensures pain free involvement in day to day activities.

Some of the cervical stretching exercises are:

  • flexion (which involves moving the neck and head forward)
  • cervical extension (moving the neck backward and looking up)
  • rotation of neck
  • chicken tucks (neck retraction) and
  • nodding of head

Stretching exercises should be done with a bit of caution as over pushing might cause further pain. Individuals suffering from certain underlying disorders such as arthritis must initiate these exercises in a gradual manner as it may exaggerate the pain if performed abruptly for longer duration without proper conditioning of the neck muscles.

Exercises to strengthen the neck

Strengthening exercises make the neck muscles stronger. Isometric exercises are usually advised for strengthening the neck. These exercises involve contraction of muscles without changing their length. Strengthening the neck will prevent reinjury to the neck and makes it less susceptible for neck strain or stress, and can also slow down arthritis and degenerative of the joints in the neck.

Some of the common exercises advised to strengthen the neck include:

  1. Isometric exercises
  2. Resistance exercises

Related exercises

These can be done to reduce pain around the neck and shoulder areas. Some of the related exercises include:

  1. Shoulder shrugs
  2. Shoulder retraction

These exercises are usually done to loosen and relax the spine in the shoulder area.

Rehabilitation tips

  • Physiotherapy will be very beneficial in those having stiffness in neck
  • Stress related pain should be treated by seeking appropriate counseling to decrease the stress
  • Strenuous exercise and carrying heavy weights should be avoided
  • Proper sleeping position as well as pillow should be used
  • Sleeping on a firm mattress will help in preventing stiff neck and other problems
  • Simple stretch exercises can relax neck muscles and can increase neck movement
  • Massaging the neck will also help in bringing down the neck pain
  • Staying healthy and physically fit will keep neck problems at bay

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