Neck pain can generally be characterized in two categories: either acute or chronic. Acute neck pain is defined as any neck pain that has lasted less than three months. And chronic is pain that has lasted longer than three months. Now chronic pain doesn’t mean permanent pain and acute pain doesn’t mean it can’t last for a while longer, but when you have a sudden onset of pain, this generally is called an acute neck pain and most often, it’s caused by a muscle or tendon strain within the neck, which can cause quite disabling pain.
When you have an acute neck pain, oftentimes these neck pains can be treated quite conservatively. For example, you can use ice, or cold measures, applying ice compresses, ice packs to the neck – to the tender muscles. You can use heat, which would probably allow for better range of motion, and a melting away of the muscle tender points. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as Motrin or ibuprofen oftentimes can also be helpful to decrease any inflammatory component and to decrease the pain within that area of the neck. Tylenol doesn’t have an anti-inflammatory component, but does inhibit some of the pain – block some of the pain that you perceive. Massage is also helpful. Oftentimes with stiff necks, we have muscle - what are referred to as muscle knots – which are muscle spasms – and the massage can help to break up those spasms.
If the neck pain is ongoing or we get some more severe signs, then perhaps one should seek medical attention. Some of those warning signs would include: neck pain that continues to get progressively worse and doesn’t respond to any of the more conservative measures, neck pain that not only is located in the neck, but may radiate out from the neck into the shoulder, into the arms, maybe cause some numbness or tingling or burning or weakness in the arms or upper extremities. This is more of a serious indicator and could be a sign that the nerves in the neck or the spinal cord are affected. Weakness especially or muscle atrophy – which would actually develop over a longer period of time, so it would be the weakness which would be the initial symptom that would send the patient to go seek medical attention.
There are other forms of conservative treatments which may also be employed. If you go to your health care practitioner, and they decide this isn’t a more serious condition – this isn’t a spinal condition – it’s just a very severe neck stiffness and neck strain, you could also undergo treatments such as chiropractic manipulations, also osteopathic manipulations. Which are conservative therapies which help to provide multiple functions, but in essence increase the range of motion, decrease the pain, relax the muscles, and sometimes realign certain structures which may have malalignment. Physical therapy is also an important tool used in the recovery process of neck pain and physical therapy can be used to not only exercise the patient and exercise the muscles, but also to teach the patient on what activities to do, what not to do, what to avoid, and can also teach a patient about proper posture. Oftentimes posture - poor posture is associated with these acute neck pain episodes and having better posture can also help curtail any future acute neck pain episodes.