Treatment for Cervical Neck Problems

By Dr. Sam Vaid, PT, DPT

Man holding hands behind neck,close-up,rear view

Neck pain is the one of the most common pain types. It has many causes, ranging from minor sprains to spinal cord injuries and neck fractures. Neck disorders are treated in a variety of ways, including physical therapy, medication, heat or ice and surgery. The type of neck disorder you have will determine the choice of therapy.


One simple way to treat neck pain is to take over-the-counter pain and antiinflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or aspirin. These medications help reduce inflammation and swelling of the soft tissues of the neck, which may alleviate your pain. Follow the directions regarding the dose, frequency and duration of taking these medications. If over-the-counter medication is not improving your symptoms, your doctor may recommend a prescription medication. However, some prescription pain relievers are highly addictive.

Heat and Ice

Heat and ice can be used to treat a variety of neck disorders. Although neither treatment cures neck disorders, they can provide short-term pain relief. Ice is beneficial during the first 2 days after an injury because it reduces swelling and relieves pain by slowing the transmission of pain signals. You can apply ice 3 to 5 times a day for 15 to 20 minutes. Heat therapy, such as a heating pad or hot pack, may be used after the first few days after a neck injury. Applying heat for 20 minutes at a time can relieve pain and reduce muscle spasms. If you use a hot or cold pack, put a towel between the pack and your skin to reduce the risk of burns or frostbite.


The orthopedic section of the American Physical Therapy Association recommends site-specific exercise for the treatment of neck pain. Stretching, strengthening and coordination exercises are particularly useful for neck pain, according to the APTA. Neck stabilization exercises are a specific type of treatment that may be recommended for neck pain. The authors of a study published in 2009 in the "Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine" report that neck stabilization exercises -- in combination with other physical therapy -- can help improve disability among people with chronic neck pain. Neck stabilization exercises help you improve the strength and function of the muscles in the area. Poorly functioning neck muscles may contribute to instability of the area and increase the risk of injury and ongoing pain. Examples of neck stabilization exercises include bending your head forward, backward and sideways against your hand. Additionally, exercises that strengthen your middle back and shoulder muscles can help improve your posture and reduce neck pain. Pulling your arms to your side against the resistance of elastic bands while simultaneously squeezing your shoulder blades together is an example of an exercise used to strengthen these muscles.


If you have chronic neck pain and physical therapy is ineffective at alleviating your symptoms, surgery may be recommended. Examples of cervical spine surgeries include fusions and discectomies. Fusions involve permanently connecting 2 or more spinal bones. This surgery is typically used to treat spinal bone fractures and spine instability associated with pinched nerves. A discectomy involves the surgical removal of an intervertebral disc, which is a gel-filled pouch that acts as a cushion between the spinal bones. Discectomy is sometimes recommended if a disc herniates, or gets pushed out of place, and presses against a nerve. Spinal fusion and discectomy are sometimes performed together.


Neck pain sometimes occurs with medical problems that require urgent care. If you have a fever and headache along with a stiff neck, seek immediate medical attention, because these symptoms may signal meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection. Sudden neck pain accompanied by shortness of breath, arm or jaw pain, nausea, vomiting or sweating could indicate a heart attack. Seek emergency medical care if you experience these symptoms. If you experience progressive numbness or weakness, or lose control of your bowels or bladder in association with neck pain, seek medical care right away. These symptoms may indicate nerve or spinal cord damage, which is often reversible if treated promptly.


About the Author

Dr. Sam Vaid is a human performance expert with advanced training in the areas of orthopedics, sports medicine, nutrition, wellness and sports performance. He is an educator, writer and clinical researcher for organizations including the American College of Sports Medicine, Lance Armstrong Foundation, "Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association" and Time Inc.

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