Harvard Women's Health Watch

Spinal manipulation and exercise trump drugs for neck pain

Most of us experience neck pain at some point in our lives. It can result from an injury or a condition such as cancer or infection, but the most common cause is overuse or misuse of muscles and ligaments. Today's computer-dominated workplace is especially tough on necks, because we sit so long with our shoulders slumped and heads extended toward monitors. People often recover from an episode of neck pain within a year, but relapses are common, and pain may come and go indefinitely.

There are many ways to treat neck pain, including spinal manipulation (for example, spinal or chiropractic adjustment), medications, exercise, massage, acupuncture, and electrotherapy. Despite considerable study of these treatments, results so far have been inconsistent and difficult to compare, and the quality of research has been uneven. Now, a randomized trial comparing three of these therapies has found that spinal manipulation and simple exercises performed at home are more effective than analgesic medications in relieving neck pain. Results were published in the Jan. 3, 2012, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine. Funding for the trial came from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

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