The head is supported by the neck, which is made up of seven bones (vertebrae) stacked one on top of the other. The vertebrae are cushioned by discs of cartilage and bound together with ligaments. Muscles provide movement and additional support.
The neck is very mobile, as it was designed to service the eyes. Trauma, poor posture and degenerative diseases, such as arthritis, are the most common causes of neck pain. There is good evidence to show that exercise helps reduce these symptoms.
Treatments such as physiotherapy, osteopathy or remedial massage can generally help neck pain.
Neck pain – whiplash
An injury to the neck that results from a sudden jerking backwards and forwards is often called whiplash. Typically, this occurs as a result of a rear-end motor vehicle accident. This type of injury can result in a strain or tear to the neck’s supporting ligaments, muscles and discs, even irritating the nerves.
Symptoms of whiplash
The common symptoms of a whiplash injury are pain, stiffness, dizziness and headache. Recovery depends on the individual and extent of the injury, but can take weeks to months.
Early treatment for whiplash may include:
- gentle mobilisation exercises
- strengthening exercises
- posture exercises
- general fitness exercises
- pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory medication
- gentle soft-tissue and joint mobilisation.
Maintaining your normal daily activities is ideal, although modifications may be necessary to assist in the recovery of your neck. Be adaptable and remain positive. If pain is severe or persists or if you have unusual symptoms associated with the injury, further examination or investigation by a healthcare professional may be required.
Neck pain – wry neck
Wry neck is the term used to describe a common condition where your neck temporarily becomes stiff and painful. Turning your head to the side (generally one side more than the other) and looking up can produce an acute pain.
One or both sides of the neck may also go into spasm, and pain may be felt from the top of the neck down to the shoulder blade and even out to the top of the shoulder.
Causes of wry neck
There are many causes of wry neck, including:
- poor sleeping posture
- a sudden flicking or jerking of the head
- viral infection
- carrying heavy unbalanced loads – such as a suitcase.
Treatment for wry neck
In most cases, if treated early, wry necks can respond well to treatment in a few days. Heat, massage and mobilisation can be used to loosen the neck joints and reduce the pain and muscle spasm.
In rare cases, particularly for people over 40, or very rarely in infants, wry neck can have underlying neurological involvement. Your doctor or therapist can help with this diagnosis and referral.
Self-care of wry neck
While you are recovering from wry neck:
- avoid sitting or lying with your neck in an awkward position
- avoid going out in the cold without being well wrapped up
- keep moving your neck (as pain allows)
- use a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or have hot showers for pain relief
- keep warm.
Talk to your doctor or chemist about pain medication if your pain is severe.
Posture problems and neck pain
Poor posture can cause neck pain by putting extra strain on ligaments and muscles. Standing with the shoulders slouched and chin poking forward, working with your head down for long periods of time, slumping while seated and sleeping face-down are common postural problems that affect the neck.
Suggestions on how to prevent posture-related neck pain include:
- Correct your posture when standing or sitting, adjust your pelvic position, lift your chest gently, nod your chin slightly and relax your shoulders.
- Ensure your workstation is set up to help you sit properly.
- Stretch and change position frequently while you are working.
- Try not to sleep on your stomach, which overextends your neck.
- Choose a urethane or down pillow for neck support while you sleep.
- Combat the muscle-tightening effects of stress with relaxation techniques.
- Exercise regularly to improve muscle tone and posture.
Osteoarthritis and neck pain
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common types of arthritis. Anyone can be affected. However, since osteoarthritis is the result of altered usage of the joints of the body over prolonged periods of time, older people are particularly prone. Osteoarthritis is characterised by the breakdown of cartilage, the firm cushion found between two bones to stop them from grinding together.
Symptoms include pain, stiffness and muscle weakness. Commonly affected areas include the neck, lower back, hands, hip and knee. There is no cure for osteoarthritis, but it can be managed with exercise. Keeping the joint mobile and in its proper alignment are the best ways to improve the health of the cartilage.
If you experience shooting pains down your arm, or numbness or lack of power in your arm or hand, then you should see your doctor, as you may need further tests, including x-rays, CT scans or an MRI.
Treatment for neck pain
Neck pain can generally be successfully treated with physiotherapy, although there are other options such as osteopathy or remedial massage to consider. If you need short-term pain relief from medication, it is advisable to talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
Treatment depends on the cause, but may include:
- soft tissue massage
- mobilisation to stretch tight muscles and other soft tissue structures
- mobilisation or manipulation of joints
- specific exercise programs of stretching and strengthening
- postural retraining and exercises
- taping to stabilise the shoulder joint and support posture
- relaxation therapy
- information on how to correct postural problems.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Australian Physiotherapy Association
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