Neck strains are an unpleasant occurrence for anyone. They can occur without injury after a night spent sleeping at the wrong angle or on pillows that are too firm or high, misaligning the spine and forcing the neck to rest at an unnatural angle.
Neck strains are usually felt in the back of the neck or mostly in the neck and partially in a nearby region, such as the back of the head, upper back, and upper shoulders.
Unlike most injuries that have an obvious cause, neck strain can occur simply from sitting too long at a keyboard, hunched over a painting, or working for long periods in a position that places stress on the surrounding muscles, causing them to tighten and knot creating the strain, discomfort and pain.
When A Strain Is Not A Strain
See your GP, health care provider, or go to any hospital emergency room if your neck strain is an actual pain, not a discomfort, after any of the following:
- After an accident in which your head suffered whiplash.
- Neck pain radiates down the arms, legs or down both combined.
- Headaches, numbness, tingling, or weakness occur with the pain.
- You fell and heard or felt a loud crack or snap in your neck area.
A surprising number of people suffer broken necks and do not realise they have fractured their vertebra and that a simple move could be all it takes to render them temporarily or permanently paralysed. If you suspect a broken neck, immobilise the head to prevent movement and call 000 for emergency services as the potential for a spinal injury to become total paralysis is high-risk and highly likely without the correct First Aid practice from the get-go.
Treating Dull Aches And Muscle Spasms
For neck strain that is not trauma related, there are two options. Ice or Heat. In most cases, heat is the preferred option, and applying a heat source will bring rapid relief and ease the discomfort.
There are several means by which a heat source can be applied.
Option 1: Apply a dry or moist heat to the area. Hot towels, steam rooms and saunas all provide dry or moist heat, as can a spa bath or hot shower. Heat and cold packs that are microwave safe and hot water bottles fall into this category and can provide rapid relief when placed across the strained or aching area.
Option 2: Chemical heat sources such as products that contain capsaicin penetrate the skin to be absorbed by the muscles and then relaxed. Cream or lotions-based products include but at not limited to:
- Tiger Balm
- Deep heat
- Vicks Vapor Rub
- Voltaren Emulgel
Dry Heat Patches
Most of the brands offer their product in the form of creams, but they also offer a range of adhesive pads and patches that can be applied to the area needing intense heat therapy, and they all work the same, regardless of your budget or preferred brand.
Ice or Ice Spray
Cold packs or Ice sprays that apply a freeze spray to the area might be helpful for some people as they can reduce any swelling. Never apply ice cubes or frozen ice packs directly to bare skin, as this will cause a soft tissue burn and worsen the problem. Always wrap ice packs in a clean, dry dishcloth or hand towel or a specially designed ice pack pouch that usually is provided with the ice/heat pack upon purchase.
Treat The Pain
Where is the more pain than niggling discomfort that, while annoying is bearable, pain medication is the ideal solution. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Panadol, Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) all work in combination with the heat treatments to provide relief.
If neither OTC pain relief nor heat provides any reduction in your pain, then you likely have a more serious injury requiring medical assessment and possibly prescription-grade pain relief containing codeine that in Australia is now only available with a prescription from a licensed physician.
Other options like prescription muscle relaxants might also benefit where there is no pain per se, but the tightness in the muscles refuses to relax and release.
And who doesn’t love a massage to get rid of the knots and kinks? Having a relaxing head, neck, shoulder, and back massage might be all it takes to rid yourself of the unwanted tension and neck strain.
Avoid Unnecessary Neck Strain
Incorrect pillow choice is the largest cause of neck pain acquired while sleeping. There is no one size fits all pillow. Finding the perfect pillow depth that caters to your neck shape and head support requirements is akin to finding the perfect shoe. It takes a lot of trial and error. Most people sleep with too many pillows or pillows that are too thick and larger than the natural gap between the neck and the mattress when on their side. Ideally, your pillow should ensure that no matter what position you are in, your neck is perfectly in line with your spine and your spine is straight.