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You wake up with a stiff neck. You can’t turn your head. The muscles in your neck and upper back feel heavy, as if they’re full of painful sludge. They tingle or pulse; they just won’t cooperate or stop hurting, and you’re over it. You need it to stop. Now.

Getting rid of neck pain doesn’t always happen immediately, but there are definitely things you can do to clear it up faster than usual.

How to tell if your neck pain is serious

First things first. The American Academy of Family Physicians features an online guide that can help you tell what might be happening. We recommend checking that out first, but if you’re in a real hurry, use the rules of thumb below:

If you just hurt your neck and/or any of the following, then consider getting medical attention.

  • Are dealing with numbness down your neck and shoulders or arms,
  • Have a fever, a really stiff neck, a compulsion to avoid light and/or vomiting,
  • Notice dizziness, trouble concentrating and/or severe pain,
  • Are dropping objects or having trouble with your balance,

You may have a spinal cord injury, meningitis, a whiplash injury or another condition that could be serious.

If your neck pain is mostly any of the following, then you can probably deal with it at home.

  • Dull or throbbing,
  • Sore or aching,
  • Accompanied by stiffness,

Neck pain is common, and is often related to a ligament sprain, muscle strain, or tendon trouble. If you notice pain for more than a few weeks, however, you might be dealing with arthritis, a structural problem or elevated stress, and so you may want to see a doctor.

9 Things you can do right now

It often takes multiple things to fix neck pain, so try several of the following things:

  1. Ice it: Cold can help in the first 72 hours after a neck injury. So reach for a chilled gel pack or the good old bag of frozen peas (just don’t put frozen things on your bare skin).
  2. Heat it: After 48 to 72 hours, switch to heat, draping a heating pad, a sock stuffed with rice (which you can microwave to warm it up), or even a washcloth soaked in warm water around your neck. A hot shower can also help.
  3. Swallow an OTC pain med: You probably want to try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) with ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), since NSAIDs can decrease both pain and  inflammation. Don’t just pop these medications, though — many OTCs, including NSAIDs, can damage your heart, liver and kidneys when used long-term. And acetaminophen (Tylenol) isn’t completely harmless either, since it affects your liver. (This is why you should avoid Tylenol if you’ve been drinking.) Finally, muscle relaxants may help if you’re dealing with a lot of neck stiffness.
  4. Change your head support: If you spend a lot of time driving or sitting in one chair, it might be time for a more supportive headrest. Position your new headrest right behind the heaviest part of your head.
  5. Sit better: Prevent “text neck” by balancing your head directly over your spine, and keep your screen or whatever else you’re looking at right at eye level. Neck posture matters, since every degree your head leans out of alignment puts more pressure on your neck.
  6. Get a new pillow: firm foam pillows designed to cradle your head, often called cervical pillows, may help. Or try water pillows, which can be filled to different levels to offer customized support.
  7. Relax: Pain is a common stress response, and often happens when muscles clench to deal with a potential threat. So try to relax asap. Yoga, a calming breathing exercise, meditation, or a walk in nature can all help.
  8. Clench: Progressive muscle relaxation is a pain and stress management tool. Clench your shoulder and neck muscles, hold them tight for 10 seconds, and then release all that tension while breathing out. Do several rounds of this.
  9. Get hands on: Hands on your neck, that is. Hire a massage therapist, acupuncturist, physical therapist, gua sha practitioner, or other professional trained to deal with neck pain. Even if they don’t fix everything, they can help you feel cared about, which can drop your stress levels along with your pain. If you can’t get a same-day appointment, try a TheraCane or other self-massaging device.

6 Things you can do in the next several days

“Neck pain is common, and is often related to a ligament sprain, muscle strain, or tendon trouble. If you notice pain for more than a few weeks, however, you might be dealing with arthritis, a structural problem or elevated stress, and so you may want to see a doctor.”

Maybe the actions above helped. But if your pain is a little more stubborn, here are a few more home remedy suggestions:

  1. Check your glasses: If you wear prescription lenses, check to see if the prescription is up to date. Lapsed prescriptions can make you squint, crane, lean forward, or otherwise increase the chances your neck will hurt.
  2. Go for a swim: Low-impact exercise can help your neck stretch and release. If swimming hurts too much, water therapy could still be an option.
  3. Scan your routine: Do you lift heavy weights? Do your workouts contain abrupt motions (such as blows and falls, like in some martial arts?) Do you sleep on your stomach, which can aggravate the angle of your neck? Do you smoke (which can increase pain)? Sift through your routine to see if you can detect any patterns related to your pain and then change those habits.
  4. Ditch the weight: Heavy messenger bags or purses might be hurting your neck or shoulders. What happens if you pack more lightly, carry your bag on the other shoulder, or use a backpack or rolling bag?
  5. Pace yourself: Don’t lift big loads or do anything too full of exertion after driving or sitting a long time. The shift between relative immobility and action can be too abrupt for sore necks, so warm up first.
  6. Try a few mental techniques: You may click with Pain Reprocessing Therapy, for example, which teaches you to move safely, even when you’re afraid of pain and injury. Although many clinicians attribute neck pain to slipped discs or other malformations that show up on scans and medical images, these abnormalities aren’t always responsible for your pain. Sometimes the cause is actually more closely related to fear. When you’re afraid of causing yourself more pain, for example, you may be consciously or unconsciously clenching your muscles, holding your breath and doing other things to protect yourself. PRT teaches you to notice your fears, find safe ways to experiment with more movement, and gradually become unafraid, and therefore in less pain.

7 Habits for long term success

You may want to work on your foundational behaviors to make sure neck pain leaves you alone both now and in the long run.

  1. Run through full range of motion exercises: Regular exercises keep your neck limber and less vulnerable to tension. Roll your chin to your chest, then lean it up as far back as it will comfortably go. Tip your ear toward one shoulder and then the other. Roll your chin and head in circles. Perform full range of motion neck stretches several times a day.
  2. Prevent tech neck: Lift your device up to eye level instead of tipping your head toward your screen. Use a headset for long phone conversations. “Tech neck” (also called “text neck”) is real and is worth avoiding!
  3. Sleep: On your side or back if possible, since stomach-sleeping can subject your neck to overly severe angles. Getting seven to eight hours of good sleep can help keep pain at bay, too.
  4. Take vitamin D: Many of us have chronic vitamin D deficiencies, which can make muscle strains worse. Add a vitamin D supplement to your daily routine, just in case.
  5. Row: A rowing habit, whether you use a rowing machine or join a club, can strengthen your upper shoulders and neck muscles, which can mean less pain. If rowing isn’t up your alley, thirty minutes of some other kind of low impact exercise can help in similar ways.
  6. Strive for low stress: Stress, anxiety, depression and other challenging conditions really do make you hurt more. For less pain, build a low-stress life.
  7. Build your life around what really matters to you: Research shows that happiness really matters. For true long-term pain management, you may want to balance pain with promoting your own happiness. So figure out what matters to you and how to put it at the center of your life.

Dr. Jacob, MD