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How to Improve Neck Pain

April 25, 2022 - Katie McCallum

There's nothing too unusual about having an achy neck from time to time — especially after a long week of desk work.

But if you're living with chronic neck pain — defined as pain in your neck that lasts longer than three months — even simple movements can be a challenge. Enjoying activities, like dancing, gardening or golfing, can feel next to impossible.

For neck pain that's consistently interfering with your daily life, don't wait to take action.

"If you suffer from neck pain, an evaluation and treatment can help prevent some problems from becoming debilitating conditions that are more difficult to treat," says Dr. Sean Barber, a spinal neurosurgeon at Houston Methodist.

What causes neck pain?

The cause of your neck pain sometimes may be obvious, such as a recent accident or strain from lifting a heavy object. Or it could be due to stress, caused from hunching over a desk for hours each day. (Related: 3 Work-Desk Mistakes That Can Lead to Bad Posture and Pain)

But neck pain isn't always something you can tie to a specific event or noticeable issue.

The underlying causes of chronic neck pain include:

  • Osteoarthritis (normal wear and tear of joints)
  • Osteoporosis
  • A pinched nerve
  • Herniated disk
  • A spinal malformation

These problems can lurk in the background, leading to pain and inflammation that won't go away. It's why seeing a spine specialist early when experiencing chronic neck pain is so important.

"Whatever the cause, we work with you to discover the source of the pain and recommend a therapeutic plan," adds Dr. Barber.

5 ways to get neck pain relief

"Most neck pain will resolve with self-care and time," says Dr. Barber.

Depending on the cause and severity of your pain, though, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following forms of neck pain relief:

  • Ice and/or heat at recommended intervals
  • Pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications
  • Physical therapy
  • At-home neck stretches and exercises
  • Spinal manipulation or massage

"If pain continues, worsens or interferes with your quality of life or we suspect certain conditions are present, we may consider more aggressive treatments," Dr. Barber adds.

What are the treatment options for chronic neck pain?

When neck pain persists or doesn't respond to medication and conservative treatments, more advanced treatments might be recommended.

"Before deciding on next steps, we perform imaging tests, such as X-ray or MRI, to help determine what's causing the pain and how to treat it," says Dr. Barber.

Depending on the imaging results, your doctor may recommend:

  • Injection-based therapies, such as steroids or nerve blocks
  • Minimally invasive or conventional surgical techniques

Injections, which can be done in the doctor's office, relieve neck pain symptoms by reducing swelling or blocking the perception of pain. Your doctor may use X-rays or fluoroscopy to locate where exactly the injection is needed.

Surgery, on the other hand, may be used to repair or replace a herniated disk or correct a spinal malformation, such as a curve in the spine called scoliosis.

"If indicated, minimally invasive surgery may result in faster healing and less pain than conventional surgery," says Dr. Barber. "However, the surgical team will determine which approach is likely to produce the best outcome for you."

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