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Avoiding Neck Pain

Tuesday, May 2, 2006


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Avoiding Neck Pain - Tuesday, May 2, 2006Discomfort in the neck is a common reason to see a physician. There are a variety of causes of neck pain. In some cases, muscle spasm may be responsible. Such muscular spasm can be produced by improper sleeping position, poor posture, or stress. However, there can be underlying disorders in the spinal column which may be responsible for an aching neck. Disorders in the cervical spine (the upper part of the spinal column that is in the neck) include aging or degeneration of the intervertebral discs (the cushioning elements in the spine between the bony vertebrae); narrowing of the central spinal canal or tunnel through which the spinal cord and nerves pass; or arthritis involving joints in the neck which allow for neck movement. Occasionally, more serious conditions, such as cancer or infection, are responsible for neck pain.

A doctor should be consulted if neck pain is the result of trauma to the head or spine. Discomfort in the neck that is accompanied by electric shock sensations or pain that travels down one or both arms or across the back may be related to pinching of a nerve and would be a reason to see a physician. If headache or fever is present along with neck pain, this should prompt a trip to the doctor. Also, if you have neck pain that is worsening, or does not decrease after a week, you should consult a doctor.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can be of benefit for minor neck discomfort. This includes pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or aspirin. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can relieve pain, but it does not reduce inflammation. Acute inflammation of the neck may respond to icing. Heat may help relax sore muscles, but sometimes it may worsen the inflammation and discomfort. Use it with caution. Physical therapy can be very helpful. Many persons with chronic neck pain have benefited from physical therapy. This is best done under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist, and it typically requires referral from a physician.

There are many tips that help prevent flare-ups of neck pain if you are someone with chronic neck discomfort. First, it is best to sleep on your side. Avoid sleeping on your stomach. Also, you should avoid propping your head up with pillows, either in bed or on the couch. If you sleep on your back, a form-fitting or cervical pillow may be useful. A firm mattress is your best bet for avoiding neck and back problems. If you have a soft mattress and can't afford a hard one, inserting a hard board (such as a sheet of plywood) between the mattress and box spring can help.

Always be aware of proper posture. Don't thrust your neck forward. Use a chair that has good back support, and avoid slouching. It is best not to lie on your side on the sofa, such as many do while watching television. This can produce muscular strain. When sitting, it's good to have your feet flat on the floor. A low footstool can be beneficial, so that your knees are slightly higher than your hips. Avoid hunching forward while doing deskwork or while in front of a computer. When walking, look straight ahead, with your head level. It is common for people to look downward and forward, which produces strain on the muscles in the back of the neck.

When drinking from a can or bottle, use a straw rather than tilting your head back, which results in hyperextension of neck. Instead of reaching upward for items higher than your head, use a step stool, so that your arms are level with the ground or, better yet, above the object for which you are reaching. In the car, observe the same posture rules as you would when sitting inside. Have a good lumbar (low back) support. Make frequent use of the rearview mirror. Avoid turning your head too fast or too far behind you. Many persons with neck pain find the higher seats toward the back of the theater more comfortable than those toward the front. The seats close to the screen can cause you to arch your neck backwards and bring on symptoms.

Finally, be aware of specific activities that may be triggers of neck pain, and avoid these activities. An ounce of prevention is really worth more than its weight in gold.

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