Neck and shoulder pain not only ruins your quality of life, but it can greatly impact your ability to work, exercise, and care for your family.
The good news is that for most people, neck and shoulder pain can be effectively treated and managed through a combination of lifestyle changes, at-home care, physical therapy, and when needed, medical interventions.
What is Neck and Shoulder Pain?
Neck pain refers specifically to discomfort, tightness, and soreness in the cervical area of the spine, which consists of seven vertebrae supporting the weight of your head.
Shoulder pain, on the other hand, typically originates from the network of muscles, tendons, and joints that enable extensive mobility in your shoulder and arm.
Often, neck and shoulder pain go hand-in-hand, as injuries, poor posture, arthritis, and other common culprits impact the surrounding anatomy. Some describe neck and shoulder pain as an ache or stiffness, while others feel sharper, radiating pain down their shoulder, arm, and back.
The pain may come and go, remain persistent for weeks, or initiate with a sudden onset after an injury.
According to studies, up to 80% of adults deal with neck pain at some point in their lives.
Shoulder pain is also extremely prevalent, with an estimated lifetime incidence of 18-26% in the general population.
What Causes Neck and Shoulder Pain?
A wide array of factors and underlying conditions can manifest as neck and shoulder pain. Here are some of the most common causes:
- Poor Posture: Slumping over computers and phones strains the neck muscles and spine. Improper posture when sitting, standing, and sleeping also contributes.
- Muscle Strain: Repetitive motions, heavy lifting, and even exercise like swimming can overwork the muscles surrounding the neck and shoulders.
- Degenerative Disc Disease: As we age, the flexible discs between the cervical vertebrae break down, resulting in pain from nerves being compressed.
- Herniated Discs: Forceful twisting or impact injuries can cause discs to bulge and press on nerve roots.
- Pinched Nerves: Herniated discs, bone spurs, or swollen tissues can pinch nerves originating from the cervical spine.
- Arthritis: Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis in the neck’s facet joints or upper spine lead to stiff, inflamed joints.
- Stress and Tension: Emotional factors like anxiety, depression, and stress activate the body’s pain receptors. Tense neck and shoulder muscles exacerbate this discomfort.
Identifying the root cause of your neck and shoulder pain will inform the best treatment approach. Your doctor can perform exams and tests for an accurate diagnosis.
What are the Symptoms of Neck and Shoulder Pain?
The hallmark symptoms of neck and shoulder pain include:
- Aching, stiffness, and soreness in the neck and shoulders
- Sharp, stabbing pains or a feeling of muscle tightness
- Pain that radiates down from the neck into the shoulders, arms, or hands
- Headaches starting in the neck and radiating upwards
- Reduced range of motion when turning the head or moving the shoulders
- Clicking, crunching, or grinding noises during neck movement
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms, shoulders, or hands
- Muscle spasms in the neck and upper back region
Pay attention to when and how your symptoms initiate. Was there a distinct injury or have they gradually developed over time? Note any alleviating or aggravating factors as well. All of these clues will help pinpoint the cause.
Who is at Risk for Neck and Shoulder Pain?
Certain individuals have a higher likelihood of experiencing neck and shoulder discomfort:
- People working desk jobs, using computers extensively, or looking down frequently
- Those with occupations requiring repetitive shoulder and arm motions
- Individuals who sit or stand for prolonged periods without changing positions
- Contact sports athletes vulnerable to injuries from collisions
- Weightlifters and strength trainers overworking their upper body
- People with poor posture habits from slumping or holding the neck forward
- Older adults at risk for spinal disc degeneration and arthritis
- Those who’ve suffered previous traumatic injuries like whiplash or fractures
Make ergonomic changes at work, strengthen postural muscles, and utilize proper techniques if your job or hobbies put you at increased risk for neck and shoulder issues. Preventative steps can reduce wear and tear over time.
How Can I Treat and Manage My Neck and Shoulder Pain at Home?
Many effective remedies and self-care steps can be implemented at home to ease neck and shoulder discomfort:
- Ice or Heat Therapy: Ice helps relieve acute pain and inflammation, while heat loosens tight muscles. Use whichever provides greater relief.
- OTC Medications: Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and naproxen treat pain and swelling. Acetaminophen offers an alternative if NSAIDs are unsuitable.
- Posture and Ergonomic Corrections: Adjust workstations, car seats, and sleeping positions to maintain proper spinal alignment and prevent slouching.
- Exercise and Stretching: Targeted neck and shoulder strengthening and flexibility exercises improve mobility and core support.
- Massage: Manual stimulation increases blood flow, reduces muscle tension, and mobilizes stiff joints. Use self-massage tools or see a massage therapist.
- Relaxation Techniques: Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can deactivate the body’s pain responses aggravated by stress.
Consult your doctor before taking any medications, and modify exercise programs based on your abilities. Consistency with home remedies is key for reducing neck and shoulder discomfort.
Sleeping Positions for Neck Pain
- Side Sleeping: Place a firm pillow between your knees and under your neck to keep your head level with your mattress.
- Back Sleeping: Use a rounded cervical pillow to cradle your neck or place a rolled-up towel beneath your neck for support.
- Stomach Sleeping: Put a slim pillow under your abdomen and hips to avoid overarching your neck backwards.
Avoid using stacks of thick pillows, which can misalign the neck and shoulders. Pillows should keep your head level and neck in a neutral position. Proper mattress firmness and pillow support are vital for waking up pain-free.
Preventing Neck and Shoulder Pain
While some causes of neck and shoulder pain cannot always be avoided, many preventative steps will help reduce your risk:
- Maintain proper posture when sitting, standing, and walking. Align your ears over your shoulders and avoid slouching.
- Take frequent breaks when working at a computer or looking down at phones to stretch the neck and relieve tension.
- Use ergonomic chairs and workstations aligned with your individual needs. Elevate monitors to eye level.
- Sleep on a supportive mattress and pillows that keep your neck straight. Sleep on your back or side versus stomach.
- Exercise regularly but progress gradually, particularly with strength training. Overdoing it leads to muscle strains.
- Learn relaxation skills like deep breathing, mindfulness, and yoga to manage life’s daily stressors.
- Avoid repetitive tasks in fixed positions for too long. Change it up and take micro breaks.
Listening to your body and being aware of discomfort early allows you to take action before small issues become chronic pains.
Exercises and Stretches for Neck and Shoulder Pain
Specific exercises build strength and counteract the poor posture typically provoking neck and shoulder discomfort. Helpful options include:
|Draw chin back 10 reps x 2 sets daily
|Lift shoulders up and relax down 10 reps x 2 sets daily
|Gently turn head side to side, hold 20 seconds
|Slide arms up and down wall with arms extended 10 reps
|Form letters with arms to strengthen shoulders
Always warm up before stretching. Start slowly and gradually increase exercise intensity. Proper form prevents injury.
When Should I See a Doctor for Neck and Shoulder Pain?
Schedule an urgent appointment with your physician if you experience:
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or hands
- Loss of bladder or bowel control along with neck pain
- Neck trauma from a car accident, fall, or injury
- Pain severely disrupting your sleep or daily activities
- Symptoms progressively worsening or failing to improve with self-care
- Unexplained weight loss occurring along with the neck pain
Seek prompt medical care for these red flags indicate nerve damage or a potentially serious underlying condition requiring specialized diagnosis and treatment.
Finding Relief from Neck and Shoulder Pain
Neck and shoulder pain affects a staggering number of people, disrupting productivity, exercise routines, and overall quality of life. While the causes vary widely, understanding your specific symptoms and triggers allows you to implement targeted, effective solutions.
With a combination of lifestyle adjustments, home remedies, physical therapy, medication, and stress management, most neck and shoulder discomfort can be successfully treated or managed for the long term. Listening to your body, maintaining strength and flexibility, and seeking medical advice when warranted gives you the best chance for pain relief.
At Kaly, we understand how debilitating chronic neck and shoulder pain can be. Our experienced providers partner with you to pinpoint the source of your symptoms and create a customized treatment plan.
Through advanced diagnostic testing, spinal adjustments, therapeutic modalities, and expert aftercare, we help patients find lasting relief.
If neck and shoulder pain has you discouraged, know there are options. Contact us today to start your journey towards free movement and living comfortably.