Don’t let neck pain slow you down

If neck pain is keeping you from doing the things you enjoy, don't worry — there are ways to get you back to your normal routine. The ultimate goals of neck pain treatment are to relieve pain, restore function, and reduce the risk of re-injury.

A physical therapy program that emphasizes strength and stretching exercises, combined as needed with medication and relaxation therapies, often relieves neck pain over the long term. But when neck pain first strikes, here's what you can do:

Some common sense advice applies. Avoid quick movements, positions that hurt, and the activity that you think caused the pain. When you do rest, keep your neck in a healthy position. Lying down for 20 to 30 minutes with your neck supported in a neutral position can be helpful. Try this: Lie on your back, with a pillow under your knees to help your back relax. Support the curve of your neck using a rolled-up towel, foam cylinder, or cervical pillow designed to support the neck. When you get up, turn onto your side and use your hands to push yourself to a sitting position.Rest. Bed rest is only recommended when there is a significant injury, such as a neck fracture or ruptured disc. However, modifying activities can often help reduce pain and prevent making the underlying injury worse.

Your doctor may recommend a cervical collar (usually made of foam or plastic) to help rest your neck muscles and protect damaged tissues from painful movements. Prolonged or constant use of such collars can reduce your range of motion and weaken neck muscles, so follow your doctor's instructions to the letter.

Cold and heat. Cold numbs pain and reduces swelling. An easy way to apply cold to an injured neck is by wrapping an ice pack (or even a bag of frozen peas) in a cloth and placing it against the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes out of every hour. Do not apply ice directly to the skin for more than a minute.

Heat, applied for about 15 minutes at a time, is a good way to reduce pain and stiffness and relieve muscle spasms. You can apply a heat pack directly to the sore or tense areas of your neck. You can buy hot packs and moist/dry heating pads, but a homemade hot pack works just as well. Heat a damp folded towel in a microwave oven (usually for about 10 to 60 seconds, depending on the strength of the oven and the towel's thickness). To avoid burns, check to be sure the towel is not too hot before applying it to your neck.

After an injury, use ice for a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes an hour for the first 24 to 48 hours. After that, you can alternate ice and heat or use either ice or heat alone.

For more information on treating and coping with neck pain, buy Neck Pain, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.