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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Neck pain

Mamae ā-kakī

Many people suffer from neck pain, and it can have a variety of causes. The most common are injury, inflammation and arthritis.

When you have neck pain, you may also get a headache. Other symptoms can include pain, numbness and weakness in one or both of your arms or legs.

If you have bad neck pain and symptoms in your arms or legs after an accident, you should seek medical advice immediately.

Diagnosing neck pain

Your general practice team or physiotherapist will ask you about your neck pain and examine you. Sometimes they might ask you to have an X-ray to help with the diagnosis. If your neck pain doesn't get better quickly or your health professional is concerned, you might need to have a scan such as an MRI scan.

Treating neck pain

The type of treatment will depend on the cause of your neck pain.

Your health professional is likely to prescribe pain relief like paracetamol or ibuprofen.

They might suggest you see a physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath for specific exercise and treatment.

Self-care for neck pain

Exercises

You can help relieve your neck pain by gently moving it often during the day. Most people find the chin tuck (or retraction) exercise gives them the best relief.

You can do this simple exercise while sitting down. Gently slide your head backwards while looking forwards, keeping your chin level with the floor. Imagine a spider dangling down in front of your face and moving your head out of its way.

Sitting posture

Good sitting posture is important. If you sit correctly, your neck won’t be strained, and you'll have less pain.

The key to good neck posture is having support in your lower back. Sit up as straight as you can and place some support, like a rolled towel, in the small of your back.

When you're looking at your smartphone or tablet, make sure you hold it up in front of you to avoid bending your head forward for long periods.

At your desktop computer, make sure the top of its screen is at your eye level. You might need to bring the screen forward on your desk to avoid poking your head forwards to read it.

You might also find it helpful to put your laptop on a stack of books or box to raise its screen up to eye level, and to use an external keyboard.

Sleeping

If you're waking up during the night with neck pain, or notice your pain is worse in the morning, you may find it helpful to change your pillow. When you're lying on your side, your neck should be in a straight line from your back to your head. Make sure your pillow is the right thickness – too thick or thin and your neck will be on an angle which will get uncomfortable.

Work

If you've been off work with a sore neck, get back to work as soon as possible – you do not need to wait for the pain to go away. Returning to work (or staying at work if you can) generally helps to heal your neck.

If you're worried about your work, talk to your employer and treatment provider about what you can and cannot do. Some people need to gradually ease back into their usual work tasks, perhaps doing fewer hours and not doing physical tasks like heavy lifting or twisting or sitting for too long.

ACC can also help you get back to work if you're having problems returning to your normal duties.

Getting help for neck pain

If you do all the things mentioned above, your neck pain should start getting better within a week, even if it doesn't go away completely. If it has not started getting better, or if your pain is getting worse you should see your general practice team, chiropractor, osteopath or physiotherapist.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2022.

Sources

Page reference: 437554

Review key: HILBP-103167