When I call something a “pain in the neck,” I usually don’t mean literally. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Except for the sweet, subtle soreness that envelops my body the day after a heavy workout, I rarely experience physical pain.
Of course, this means that on the infrequent instances when I do feel physical pain, I act like a wounded baby. This mostly applies to toothaches, which I maintain are the most debilitating predicament in the world, but also to instances of stubbing my toe, which occur more commonly because I am an uncoordinated klutz.
Oh, and let’s not forget my monstrous menstrual cramps, which can become even more excruciating than a cavity.
A few months ago, though, I experienced a sharp pain that ricocheted through my upper body with no apparent cause, as I was lowering myself onto my couch with my morning coffee. My first thought was, “Whoa, that really hurt!”; and my second thought was, “What the hell just happened? Am I officially old enough to pull a muscle simply sitting down?”
In typical traumatized-toddler fashion, I squealed over text (Owwwwwmg) to a local friend, who came to the rescue with Advil and an ice pack. The pain subsided after a little while, but I had a mystery to solve: what precipitated that piercing pain that seemingly came out of nowhere?
Pain can be a tricky thing, especially because our bodies are so complicated. Luckily, with the help of my massage therapist at my next deep-tissue session, I came to a convincing conclusion: my muscles were simply stiff after I’d just returned from a 16-hour road trip, where I was curled up between boxes in the backseat the entire time (oh, the joys of piling people into a van for a destination adventure).
The magic of massage, plus a return to movement, cured my confusing malady, and I felt less terrified that my body was rebelling against me. But for the millions of Americans who are more sedentary, the experience of nagging pain can become more chronic. An estimated 20 to 50 percent of people deal with neck niggles annually, so when they say something is a “pain in the neck,” they absolutely mean it.
If this characterization describes you, don’t feel ashamed, because the problem is more widespread than you think. “In physical therapy, neck pain is one of the most common reasons we treat patients,” says Sara Mikulsky, a physical therapist who specializes in outpatient orthopedics. “Often, someone who has back pain will also develop neck pain if left untreated. Additionally, many shoulder pain patients also develop secondary neck pain due to the common attachment of muscles. Neck pain is also a leading cause of chronic pain syndrome and can also lead to development of headaches, jaw pain, and occasional vertigo,” she explains.
So how do so many of us wind up with a wounded neck? “Our modern lifestyles are rife for generating neck pain, be it sleeping badly, exercising wrong, poor desk ergonomics, or the dreaded ‘text neck,’” explains Matthew Green, a physical therapist and founder of BodyGuide. “Most of us turn to pain killers (or a glass of wine) and a trip to the physical therapist for a massage. However, it doesn’t have to be so draining – we can take the control back! Through clever self-massages, a little understanding of what causes the pain, and the muscles responsible, we can create a defense against future pain,” he explains.
So, if you’re not ready to splurge on a sports massage, but want to take pain control into your own hands (without it becoming a literal (or figurative) pain in the neck) consider these six products that are backed by the pros.
If you’re a dog mom, you definitely have one (or 10) of these lying around – but you probably didn’t know these fuzzy green spheres could promote pain relief through self-massage and myofascial release.
“At the end of the working day, spend some time lying on a tennis ball to keep the muscles of your neck and shoulders healthy,” Green says. “Find a tender spot, stay still, and breathe evenly for 30 seconds. If you can, self-massage lying down, so that gravity does all the work while you relax.”
Ready to swing into self-massage? Download Green’s BodyGuide app for a personalized pain program, order a copy of his book I’m Sick Of Being Sore, and purchase a pack of pressurized tennis balls.
You may not already have one tucked away in your basement, but a styrofoam cylinder is another self-massage tool that can plug away at your pain.
“Both stretching and strengthening are important to alleviate neck pain. I recommend a collection of foam roller exercises that help mobilize the thoracic spine, which can in turn relieve neck pain and discomfort,” says Lisa Alemi, a physical therapist and founder of MoveMamaMove. “These exercises include lying on the foam roller perpendicular and moving the foam roller up and down the spine.”
“I also recommend lying parallel on the foam roller and stretching arms out to the side, as long as it doesn’t increase any nerve-related pain,” Alemi advises. “With arms out to the side, I recommend patients move arms up and down, side to side, and in and out to help with anterior chest wall stretching and thoracic extension.”
Ready to roll? Fetch your high-density foam roller and explore even more foam roller exercises here.
Dual Hot/Cold Pack
When it comes to pain and soreness, should you alleviate with ice or heal with heat? Alemi has some guidelines. “When it comes to ice packs and heat packs, I keep two things in mind,” she says. “When and how did the injury start? If the injury or pain had sudden onset, use ice — but only for a few days after the onset of pain. If the pain was gradual and has been chronic, I recommend heat.”
“I also recommend using what feels best,” Alemi explains. “If ice alleviates symptoms, use it. If heat alleviates symptoms, use it.”
Whichever temp you try, you can use it and reuse it with this multipurpose hot-and-cold pack. The flexible strap helps you apply heat or ice to the affected area, reducing inflammation and improving circulation.
Ergonomic Office Chair
If the source of your soreness is poor posture, nix the neck pain by fixing how you sit. “For most people, hours of the day are spent with their heads and necks forward, looking at a phone or laptop,” notes Vanessa Osorio, a sleep science coach at Sleepopolis. “Research shows the cervical spine area to become stressed from this extensive tech use. This results in neck pain, numbness, headaches, shoulder tension, and more,” she says.
Osorio recommends addressing the symptoms by focusing on proper posture. “Instead of the head and shoulders sinking forward and putting strain on the neck, they should be aligned properly,” she explains. “The ears should sit vertically above the shoulders. Keeping your laptop or phone at eye level helps to avoid poor posture from looking down.”
Need a boost to beef up your posture? This ergonomic office chair boasts a built-in headrest, lumbar support, and padded armrest so you can sit upright all day while keeping neck pain at bay.
Foam Contour Pillow
You might love your lush pillow, but it could perpetuate your pain if it’s not supporting your spine. “Pain can be relieved by the spine being properly aligned during sleep,” Osorio explains. According to Osorio, one goal of chiropractic treatment is to help patients “train themselves to sleep with their neck and head horizontal to relieve stress on the neck. The ears, shoulders, and hips should align no matter the sleep position,” she says.
One way to aid this alignment is to use a proper pillow, advises Brett Edmunds, a chiropractor with Paramount Health. “Investing in the right pillow will not only ensure a pain-free and comfortable sleep, but will also help your overall posture,” he says.
Pumped to take the pillow plunge? A foam contour pillow is best to support your neck, like this ergonomic cervical pillow with memory foam that cradles the natural curvature of your neck. Keep your spine aligned all night!
Pain Relief Cream/Gel
If you’ve perfected your posture but still need to soothe your sore neck, a topical pain cream can be just what the doctor ordered. “A prescription compound cream is a great option for at-home relief for neck pain,” says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer at Clearing, a telehealth platform for chronic pain patients. “The combination of natural and pharmaceutical ingredients can help numb the pain in your neck while also bringing soothing relief.”
“A helpful tip is to look for creams with menthol, which has a nice cooling effect, and a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen, to help with inflammation,” Hascalovici advises.
For pain relief that penetrates, pick up a tube of Icy Hot lidocaine cream with maximum-strength power and menthol. It’s non-greasy, numbing, and negates the need to pop a pill. “Oral NSAIDs, even over the counter, can irritate the stomach, elevate blood pressure, and interfere with kidney function, so I always recommend avoiding them initially if possible,” Hascalovici explains.
When To Seek Medical Advice
Of course, home remedies can’t always replace a visit to your local doctor. “If you have neck pain lasting longer than two weeks, seek out the advice of a physical therapist,” advises Mikulsky. “Physical therapists are trained to evaluate and treat pain. They can also identify if the pain is related to something more severe, and if you should be referred to a specialist,” she says.
Have you been rubbing and rolling to ease a pain in the neck? What products have you found most effective? Share your advice for fellow sufferers in the comments below!
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