How to Cure Neck Pain Fast? 8 Best Relief & Treatments

Khang T. Vuong, MHA
Khang T. Vuong, MHA17 Sep 2023

Let's be real, neck pain sucks! It lasts for days, while neck pain isn't as painful as an open wound, it can hinder your range of motion greatly and disrupts many daily activities. Even worse, it is hard to explains to someone who hasn't experienced it before. 

Various strategies exist for neck pain management, ranging from over-the-counter pain relievers to physical therapy. While heat and cold therapies offer instant relief, lifestyle changes can prevent recurring pain. Acupuncture and massage therapy are alternative treatments. OTC creams provide temporary relief, but prescription meds, though effective, come with potential side effects.

Over the Counter Pain RelieversTemporary relief; Easily accessible.Prolonged use can lead to liver damage, kidney problems, and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Physical Therapy & ExerciseImmediate and long-term pain relief; Prevents further injury.Need for professional guidance to avoid exacerbating the pain.
Heat and Cold TherapyImmediate pain relief; Easy to apply.Risk of burns or frostbite; not suitable for inflamed areas or stiff muscles.
Massage TherapyRelaxes muscles, improves circulation, and reduces anxiety.Need to choose the right type of massage for specific pain.
AcupunctureBalances body's energy flow; Provides significant pain reduction.Requires trained professionals; Some people might be skeptical or fearful of needles.
Lifestyle AdjustmentsPrevention of neck pain; Overall well-being and improved quality of life.Requires consistency and regularity; Need to identify and avoid triggers.
Over-the-counter Pain Creams/GelsImmediate relief from minor aches; Provides cooling or heating sensation.Temporary relief; Not suitable for open wounds or sensitive areas.
Prescription MedicationsEffective pain management; Targets specific pain types.Potential side effects; Risk of addiction with opioids.

Understand Biological Causation of Neck Pain

The occurrence of neck pain has considerably increased over recent years. Statistically speaking, around 30% to 50% of adults experience neck pain annually, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI, 2021). A majority of individuals, across all age groups, will experience neck pain at least once in their lifetime. This adds to the global burden of disability and impacts the quality of life. The strains and sprains due to activities such as prolonged computer use, improper sleeping position, carrying heavy items, or even poor posture often result in this discomfort. This pain can originate from any part or structure in the neck to include joints, ligaments, muscles, and discs, causing different types of pain from dull aches, throbbing, to stabbing sensations.

Degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis or nerve compression disorders like the cervical spondylosis may also be at the heart of frequent neck pains. The neck starts getting stiff with motion loss in osteoarthritis, whereas nerve root compression could lead to pain spreading into the shoulder, arm, or hand in cervical spondylosis. These causes are further compounded by underlying genetic factors, making certain groups more susceptible to developing these conditions.

1. Over the Counter Pain Relievers: An Accessible Short-Term Solution

Over the counter pain relievers, including Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen, are widely used to alleviate acute bouts of neck pain. These non-prescription medications can provide temporary relief and are readily accessible in most households, making them a convenient initial response to discomfort. A study by Harvard Medical School confirms the efficacy of these medications in providing varying degrees of pain relief (Harvard Medical School source).

MedicationTypePurposeTypical Dosage
AcetaminophenPain relieverReduces pain325-650 mg every 4-6 hours (adults)
IbuprofenNSAID*Reduces pain, inflammation, and fever200-400 mg every 4-6 hours (adults)
NaproxenNSAID*Reduces pain, inflammation, and fever220-440 mg initially, then 220 mg every 8-12 hours (adults)
AspirinNSAID*Reduces pain, inflammation, and fever325-650 mg every 4 hours (adults)
Capsaicin creamTopical analgesicReduces pain by numbing the areaApply 3-4 times daily (adults)

Effectiveness and Safety: Balancing Pain Relief and Health Risk

While these over-the-counter drugs can deliver quick pain relief, it is essential to consider their potential side effects and health risks. For instance, prolonged and frequent use of such medicines can cause health problems like liver damage or gastrointestinal issues. Therefore, while effective in the short term, these pain relievers should not be seen as a long-term solution to persistent neck pain.

Considerations: The Health Risks of Long-Term Use

Despite their accessibility and effectiveness, over the counter pain relievers are not without their risks. Continuous and incorrect usage can lead to health complications such as kidney damage, liver problems, or gastrointestinal bleeding.

2. Physical Therapy and Exercise: A Long-Term Approach to Neck Pain

Along with medication, physical therapy and regular exercise like stretching and strengthening can significantly alleviate neck pain. The Mayo Clinic emphasizes the long-term benefits of professional guidance in formulating an appropriate and personalized exercise program.

Manual TherapyHands-on techniques such as joint mobilizations, soft tissue massage, and myofascial release.Improves joint mobility, reduces muscle tension, and alleviates pain.
Therapeutic ExerciseTailored strengthening and stretching exercises targeting muscles surrounding the neck and upper back.Increases strength, improves posture, and enhances range of motion.
Postural TrainingTechniques and exercises to improve postural awareness and alignment, especially during daily activities or while sitting at a workstation.Reduces strain on the neck, prevents pain recurrence, and optimizes spinal alignment.
ElectrotherapyUse of electrical modalities such as TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) to manage pain.Reduces pain, stimulates muscles, and improves blood flow.
Thermal ModalitiesUse of heat or cold packs to manage pain and inflammation.Cold can reduce inflammation, and heat can relax muscles and improve tissue flexibility.
Dry NeedlingInsertion of thin needles into trigger points or muscular knots to relieve tension and pain.Reduces muscle tension, alleviates pain, and can reset muscle fibers.

Importance of Professional Guidance: Maximizing the Benefits of Exercise

Physical therapy under professional supervision can help target the specific muscles and joints causing the neck pain. With a tailored exercise regimen, individuals can achieve optimal results and prevent further injury.

Long-Term Benefits: Beyond Immediate Pain Relief

Aside from providing immediate relief, regular physical therapy and exercises can also offer long-term benefits. They enhance muscle flexibility and strength, improve posture, and can potentially prevent future episodes of neck pain. Thus, this approach provides not only a symptom-relief but also a preventive advantage.

3. Heat and Cold Therapy: Effective in Pain and Swelling Reduction

The application of both heat and cold compresses has been proven to play a significant role in reducing pain and swelling. This alternative form of therapy can be a straightforward way to manage pain, particularly in the neck area (Spine-health).

How to Use and Where to Buy

Using heat or cold therapy is quite simple. For a heat therapy, a warm towel or a heating pad can be applied directly to the neck area for about 15 minutes. Similarly, for cold therapy, a cold pack or even a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel can serve the purpose. Both types of therapy provide immediate relief from pain and can be repeated several times throughout the day as needed. These therapy items are typically available in pharmacies and online shopping platforms.

Precautions to Consider

While heat and cold therapy can be extremely beneficial, one must be cautious not to overuse them. Overheating or overcooling the skin can cause burns or frostbite. It is also advised to avoid heat therapy if the area is already hot or inflamed, and cold therapy should not be used on stiff muscles or joints. Before starting any therapy, it is always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional (Spine-health).

4. Massage Therapy: An Effective Strategy for Easing Neck Pain

Massage therapy has shown great efficacy in reducing muscle tension, specifically in the neck area, thus providing significant relief from neck pain.

Massage TypeDescriptionBenefits
Swedish MassageUtilizes long gliding strokes, kneading, friction, tapping, and gentle stretching.Promotes relaxation, increases blood flow, and eases muscle tension.
Deep Tissue MassageFocuses on realigning deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue, using slow strokes and deep pressure.Targets chronic muscle tension, breaks down adhesions, and may help with chronic neck pain.
Trigger Point MassageApplies focused pressure to "trigger points" or tight areas within muscle tissue that can cause pain in other parts of the body.Helps release constricted areas, reduces pain, and may relieve referred pain patterns.
Myofascial ReleaseInvolves applying gentle, sustained pressure to release tension in the myofascial connective tissue.Reduces pain caused by myofascial tightness and restrictions.
ShiatsuA Japanese technique using finger pressure in a rhythmic sequence on acupuncture meridians.Aims to restore energy balance, may relieve tension, and reduce pain.
Craniosacral TherapyA gentle technique focused on the cranial bones, spine, and sacrum to bolster the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.Potentially addresses neck pain stemming from cranial imbalances.
Thai MassageA blend of passive stretching and gentle pressure with rhythmic compression, joint mobilizations, and acupressure.Improves flexibility, reduces tension, and can alleviate pain by improving posture and alignment.

Types of Massage

There are a variety of massage techniques, each tailored to address different types of muscle tension and pain. Swedish massage, the most common type, uses gentle kneading and long, flowing strokes to relieve muscle tension. Deep tissue massage uses stronger pressure and is beneficial for chronic muscle pain. Trigger point massage focuses on specific areas of tight muscle fibers and is effective for neck pain caused by these muscle knots.

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How Regular Massage Helps

Regular massage therapy can be beneficial in addressing chronic neck pain. It helps to relax the muscles, improve circulation, and increase flexibility. It has been observed that people who have regular massage therapy experience better sleep, improved concentration, and decreased anxiety. All these outcomes contribute to the overall reduction of neck pain and an improved quality of life (American Massage Therapy Association).

5. Acupuncture and Chronic Neck Pain

Understanding Acupuncture

Acupuncture, an essential part of traditional Chinese medicine, has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including chronic neck pain. This technique involves inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body to stimulate nerve-rich areas and influence the body's natural healing response. The treatment process aims to balance the body's energy flow, also known as qi, and relieve pain.

Science Backs Acupuncture

Recent research has supported the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for chronic neck pain. The Cochrane Database, a highly regarded resource for systematic reviews in healthcare, published a study in which patients reported significant pain reduction and improved quality of life after undergoing acupuncture treatments (Cochrane Database). These results provide persuasive evidence of acupuncture's efficacy in treating chronic neck pain, supporting its use as a viable therapeutic option.

6. Lifestyle Adjustments for Neck Pain Relief

Best Sleeping Positions

Choosing the right sleeping position can make a significant difference in managing and preventing neck pain. According to Harvard Health, sleeping on your back or side with a pillow that supports the natural curvature of your neck can help prevent unnecessary stress on your cervical spine (Harvard Health).

Diet and Exercise

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle plays a crucial role in managing neck pain. Regular exercise, especially activities that strengthen the neck and core muscles, can help reduce the strain on the neck. Additionally, a balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can help manage pain and inflammation.

Stress Management

Stress significantly contributes to neck pain, as it can lead to muscle tension and poor posture. Therapeutic practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can help manage stress levels, thereby helping to alleviate neck pain symptoms.

Ergonomic Tips

Modifying your workstation setup to an ergonomic design can significantly decrease the risk of developing neck pain. An ergonomically correct workstation involves proper chair height, adequate equipment spacing, and good lighting, reducing the strain on your neck during work hours. Regular breaks from prolonged sitting or standing can also help prevent neck strain.

7. Over-the-counter Pain Creams and Gels

Understanding How Pain Relief Creams Work

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief creams and gels frequently provide temporary relief from minor aches, pains, and inflammations. They function by producing a cooling or heating sensation that distracts from the pain. Certain creams also contain ingredients like NSAIDs, which can help reduce inflammation, providing relief. As per Pain Science, these topical solutions do not guarantee complete pain elimination but relieve discomfort to a significant extent. This relief, however, is temporary and diminishes as the effects of the cream or gel wear off. Therefore, these OTC products are generally recommended for acute minor pains or alongside other treatment modalities for chronic conditions (Pain Science).

Proper Usage of Pain Creams and Gels

Employing OTC pain creams and gels properly is essential for optimal results. These topicals should be applied to the area of discomfort, preferably after cleaning the skin. Additionally, one should keep in mind that these creams are not suitable for open wounds or sensitive areas such as the eyes. Overuse or misuse can lead to skin irritation or other side effects. Always follow the instructions on the product label or consult a healthcare professional if unsure (Pain Science).

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8. Prescription Medications

Exploring the Types of Prescription Medications

Prescription medications for pain relief are diverse, and the choice depends on the nature and severity of the pain. These include non-opioid analgesics, opioids, and adjuvant analgesics. Non-opioid analgesics, such as acetaminophen, are often used for mild to moderate pain. Opioids, like morphine, are typically prescribed for severe pain. Adjuvant analgesics, including some antidepressants and anticonvulsants, can be used for different types of pain, especially neuropathic pain.

Medication ClassExamplesPurposePotential Side Effects
Muscle RelaxantsCyclobenzaprine (e.g., Flexeril), Methocarbamol (e.g., Robaxin), Carisoprodol (e.g., Soma)Relieves muscle spasms and tensionDrowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, potential dependence
Opioid AnalgesicsHydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin, Norco), Tramadol (e.g., Ultram), Oxycodone (e.g., Percocet, OxyContin)Treats moderate to severe painDependence, drowsiness, nausea, constipation
Antidepressants (specifically for chronic pain)Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline (e.g., Pamelor)Addresses neuropathic pain and may help with sleepDrowsiness, weight gain, dry mouth, blurred vision
AnticonvulsantsGabapentin (e.g., Neurontin), Pregabalin (e.g., Lyrica)Treats neuropathic pain and nerve-related painDizziness, drowsiness, weight gain, peripheral edema
Topical AnalgesicsLidocaine patches, Diclofenac gel (e.g., Voltaren Gel)Direct pain relief to the applied areaSkin irritation, local allergic reactions
CorticosteroidsPrednisone, Methylprednisolone (e.g., Medrol)Reduces inflammation; can be oral or injectedWeight gain, insomnia, mood swings, increased blood sugar

Understanding the Side Effects of Prescription Medications

While prescription medications can be effective in pain management, they can have side effects. These can range from mild, such as constipation and drowsiness, to severe, like addiction in the case of opioids, which is why they should always be used under a healthcare provider's supervision. Understanding these potential side effects is crucial for safe and effective use of these medications (WebMD).

Frequently Asked Questions:

Are over-the-counter pain relievers safe?

Yes, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are generally safe when used as directed. As per the research published by the Mayo Clinic, these are designed to relieve minor aches and pains, and can be very effective when used properly. It is always advisable to follow the instructions on the package and never exceed the recommended dosage. Moreover, prolonged use or overdosing can lead to serious complications such as liver damage, stomach ulcers, and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Therefore, it's always best to consult your healthcare provider if your pain persists (Mayo Clinic, 2019).

How often should I engage in physical therapy and exercise?

The frequency of physical therapy and exercise largely depends on the severity of your neck pain and your physical condition. According to Harvard Medical School, mild to moderate neck pain may require physical therapy sessions two to three times per week. As your condition improves, your therapist may recommend a tailored home exercise program that will reduce the need for in-person sessions. Regular exercise, at least 30 minutes a day, is beneficial to maintain overall health and prevent further neck issues (Harvard Health Letter, 2020).

What kind of massage is best for neck pain?

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the "Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation" in 2017 concluded that various types of massage therapy, particularly Swedish and deep tissue massage, can provide short-term relief from neck pain. The therapist utilizes a range of techniques to manipulate soft tissues, release tension, and improve circulation in the affected area (Xue et al., 2017). 

Can acupuncture alone manage neck pain?

The research published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggests that acupuncture can be effective in providing short-term relief for chronic neck pain. However, acupuncture should not replace conventional treatments but can be used as an adjunct therapy. More high-quality trials are needed to draw firm conclusions about its long-term effects on neck pain (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2016).

How do lifestyle adjustments help with neck pain?

Maintaining a good posture, staying active, and avoiding prolonged immobility can all help to prevent and manage neck pain. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, adopting healthier habits such as proper body mechanics, ergonomic workstations, and regular breaks during prolonged sitting can have positive effects on maintaining neck health (American Physical Therapy Association, 2021).

Are OTC pain relief creams and gels effective?

Topical OTC pain relief creams and gels can be effective for temporary relief of minor aches and pains. According to an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, these products use active ingredients like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), capsaicin, or menthol to provide local analgesia. However, the relief provided is temporary and is not a cure for the underlying condition causing the pain (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2019).

When should I consider prescription medications for neck pain?

Prescription medication for neck pain should be considered if OTC medications and non-pharmacologic strategies have not provided adequate relief. It's also advisable to consider prescription medications if your pain is severe or is associated with symptoms like numbness, weakness, or changes in bowel or bladder function. These might be signs of a more serious condition that requires medical intervention, as outlined by the American Academy of Family Physicians (American Academy of Family Physicians, 2021).

Khang T. Vuong, MHA

Khang T. Vuong received his Master of Healthcare Administration from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. He was named Forbes Healthcare 2021 30 under 30. Vuong spoke at Stanford Medicine X, HIMSS conference, and served as a Fellow at the Bon Secours Health System.