Neck pain

Whether you have ongoing discomfort in your neck or are suddenly experiencing pain and stiffness, this summary will help you understand the causes and how physiotherapy can help. Research suggests that in most cases it is best to keep normally active.

What is neck pain?

Neck pain is extremely common. Pain and stiffness can make it difficult to turn round – for example, when reversing a car. Symptoms may appear suddenly, as when someone wakes up with a stiff and painful neck, or gradually. The pain may be limited to the neck or may be accompanied by headaches and dizziness, or pain and pins and needles down the arm or hand.

What causes it?

Most neck pain does not have one simple cause, but is a result of a range of conditions that affect joints, muscles, tendons and the other tissues in the neck. Factors that can contribute include tension and sustained or repetitive activity, such as using the telephone a lot, sitting at computer screens or in front of the television, playing a musical instrument, and long-distance driving.

If the neck has moved suddenly and unexpectedly (as in a car accident), the pain may be due to an injury, commonly known as whiplash.

How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapists are highly skilled at helping people with neck pain. The physiotherapist will examine your neck and explain how you can manage the pain, contribute to your own recovery and prevent the problem from recurring.

What will happen when I see a physiotherapist?

The physiotherapist will assess how your neck is working and affecting your life. They will ask lots of questions, watch your movements and feel your neck. Any visit is likely to include:

It may also include:

  • some manual therapy
  • applying heat or cold to the affected area
  • acupuncture, if the physiotherapist has additional training.

Are there physiotherapists with extra training in this area?

All physiotherapists have training and skills for neck pain management, but some specialise up to Masters level. Physiotherapists with a particular interest in neck pain are likely to be members of a number of CSP special interest groups.

Meanwhile, how can I help myself?

For most types of neck pain rest does not help recovery, and it is better to keep moving. Tips include:

  • Keep as active as possible, changing positions regularly.
  • Take simple pain relief and any prescription medicines regularly. Follow the instructions on the packet, or ask your pharmacist.
  • Notice when your neck and shoulder muscles start to tense up, and learn a relaxation technique that works for you.
  • Consider using an electric hot pad to soothe the affected area.

Note: Go to the doctor if your pain is severe or is the result of an injury, or if it lasts more than a few days, spreads into your arm, or is accompanied by dizzy spells. They may prescribe medication to reduce the symptoms, or may refer you to a specialist or physiotherapist.

Where can I get more information?

The Neck Book

By Gordon Waddell et al, published by The Stationery Office (2002). Booklet providing advice and information on how to cope with neck pain.  W The Neck Book, on Amazon.co.uk

Pain in the Neck

Online information produced by the Arthritis Research Campaign that explains how the neck works and the common causes of neck pain and related conditions.