Neck pain affects about 15% of adults in the U.S., mostly women, and can lead to chronic discomfort that impacts a person’s daily life. In this post, we’re looking at some of the leading treatments and neck pain exercises you can do to find neck pain relief.
Finding neck pain relief
Causes of neck pain range from poor posture to medical conditions like arthritis. The severity and duration of neck pain varies depending on the primary cause. Posture can be corrected while arthritis is a more lasting concern.
Neck pain may cause only a sore neck, but sometimes, particularly when the cervical facet joints become damaged, pain or inflammation can also affect the shoulder or upper back. Sometimes even turning the head becomes a painful ordeal. This dramatically lowers quality of life, and reduces a person’s ability to work and engage in other life activities.
1. Biofeedback for neck pain relief
Through learning biofeedback techniques, patients learn to control important body vital signs including temperature and heart rate, in addition to developing the ability to relax specific muscles.
Patients learn these special techniques while receiving real-time feedback from electrical sensors that are applied to their body during training sessions. As patients learn methods of controlling vital signs and other important body functions, they receive information from the sensors, helping them to refine their biofeedback abilities.
Studies show the technique is highly effective for reducing neck pain. Research published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed that patients who participated in a six-week-long biofeedback training session experienced significantly reduced pain when compared to other study subjects who didn’t participate in the sessions.
Other experimental groups in the study included one that completed an exercise regimen and another that received a type of electrical stimulation therapy. A control group was supplied with educational pamphlets but did not receive any treatment.
Biofeedback is an excellent treatment method for finding neck pain relief because it’s non-invasive, instead harnessing the power of the mind/body connection to alleviate pain and help patients regain a sense of control over their lives.
2. Chiropractic care for neck pain
Chiropractors specialize in making sure patients have optimal spinal alignment. Alignment is very important to evaluate in neck pain because in many cases, patients’ pain results from poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle. Spending the day in front of the computer and television screen is typical for many people, but the hunched-over postures commonly adopted while participating in these activities is a common source of neck pain.
To help a patient find pain relief, a chiropractor may apply controlled thrusts to the spine in a specific way to reset the bones and ligaments into optimal alignment, relieving pressure and pain.
3. Virtual reality, for neck pain?
No, we’re not talking about escaping to a new reality where neck pain doesn’t exist, but instead using wearable technology to shift patients’ perceptions of how much they are moving.
Pain has much to do with the brain and perception, and researchers at the University of South Australia recently studied this connection using virtual reality. Subjects wore head-mounted devices that were set up to over- or under-estimate how much they moved their heads.
Patients experienced a greater range of motion when the virtual reality devices they wore understated how much they moved. In other words, they may have turned their heads two inches, but saw only one inch in the virtual reality.
Conversely, patients whose devices overestimated how much their heads moved—making it seem as if a patient turned the head two inches when in real life, the movement spanned one inch—experienced a smaller range of pain-free motion. Scientist Lorimer Moseley says:
“Our findings show that the brain does not need danger messages coming from the tissues of the body in order to generate pain in that body part.”
A patient believing pain will soon come based on external cues is sometimes enough to trigger sensation, Moseley adds. The results encouraged researchers to believe that next-generation treatments for neck pain will focus on helping patients differentiate between stimuli that will lead to pain and those they only think will lead to pain.
The 24 subjects recruited for the study had suffered from neck pain for an average of 11 years that resulted from causes including poor posture, trauma, and scoliosis, making this group representative of many other chronic pain patients.
4. Active release technique for neck pain relief
This highly specialized form of therapeutic massage, also referred to as ART, involves using deep pressure to break up scar tissue that may have formed in the soft tissue of the painful area.
Sometimes, neck pain results from a muscle strain or the accumulation of many small tears within soft tissue. These situations may result in the build-up of scar tissue that a deeply penetrating technique like ART can disband. The patient is often active during this process, moving in specific ways to augment the breaking up of scar tissue.
ART helps to restore the natural integrity of soft tissue, removing pain at its source.
5. Acupuncture for neck pain
This ancient therapy involves the use of long, thin needles inserted into the skin, their placement dictated by where the patient feels pain.
Acupuncture comes from the ancient system of Chinese medicine, which holds that the body has invisible lines of energy running through it known as meridians. Every organ and part of the body is connected to a specific meridian, and an acupuncturist has the ability to evaluate patients and determine the appropriate placement of needles to facilitate pain relief.
A review of research by doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found the ancient treatment helped to reduce half of all patients’ pain by 50%, reports ABC News. The study reviewed the treatment’s effectiveness for four conditions, including neck pain. Study author Andrew Vickers told ABC News:
“There is now a solid evidence base for referring patients for acupuncture.”
Because the therapy is so ancient, it’s based on theories not contained in modern medical books, and so many Western doctors have remained skeptical of its efficacy. Increasing amounts of research is showing that acupuncture has profound benefits for neck pain relief, even though the mechanisms underlying the relief aren’t fully understood.
6. Yoga for neck pain
If you’re suffering from chronic neck pain, you’ve probably tried just about everything to find neck pain relief. Yoga, the ancient mind/body practice that’s gained much recognition for reducing stress, may not be the first method on your list of ways to minimize neck pain. But studies show these neck pain relief exercises work.
German researchers found that a group of patients with chronic neck pain experienced neck pain relief and improved quality of life after participating in yoga classes. Authors of the research, published in The Journal of Pain, theorized that yoga poses simultaneously reduced muscle tension while strengthening neck muscles, encouraging proper alignment and optimal support for the head.
Researchers focused on Iyengar yoga, a special form that emphasizes proper alignment—even moreso than other schools of yoga. In Iyengar, poses are traditionally completed with an array of props that assist students as they hold poses for long periods of time. However, other types of yoga can also help strengthen neck muscles and encourage them to reset into optimal alignment.
Here are a few yoga for neck pain poses to try. Want to follow along? Click play on the video now and then read through each pose!
1. Triangle pose—Utthita Trikonasana
Enter this pose from standing tall in mountain pose, with the feet together or slightly apart at the top of the mat. Step the right foot back a few feet so the edge of the foot is parallel to the back of the mat. Or, if it feels better, turn the toes of the right foot inward 15 or 20 degrees. The arch of the right foot should align with the heel of the left foot.
The left toes remain pointing forward toward the front of the mat. Feel free to adjust your stance, widening or narrowing it, to feel comfortable. Keep the legs straight.
On an inhale, lift the arms so they’re parallel to the ground and reach forward, past the left toes, as if a string was tied to your left hand. Keep the spine nice and tall, heart open, as if pressing the body against a pane of glass behind you. Glide the left hand down toward the ground, lowering only as low as your hamstring will allow.
The full expression of the pose involves resting the fingertips on the floor, but don’t sacrifice form for depth. Instead, keep the spine nice and long, with the heart open as the left hand drifts lower. Rest the hand on the leg, or on a block, but engage the core to maintain the posture instead of dumping weight into the hand. Hold for five or ten breaths and then repeat on the other side.
2. Side angle pose—Utthita Parsvakonasana
This pose begins with the same foot orientation as triangle pose. Doing the left side first, stand with the legs a few feet apart, the right foot parallel to the mat or toes turned slightly in, and the left foot perpendicular to the right, with heel to arch alignment.
Bend the left knee so it’s directly above the ankle. This may require adjusting the stance a little bit. You’ll feel the hips begin to open and the leg muscles engage. Stretch the arms out parallel to the ground on an inhale, with the gaze out over the left hand. Keep the torso nice and long, with the crown of the head reaching towards the sky, not drifting forward.
Bend the left arm and place the forearm on the left thigh. Reach the right arm up overhead, straight to the sky. Keep the gaze on the ground, out to the side, or up to the sky, staying mindful of the neck. Stay for five to ten breaths and then repeat on the other side.
3. Locust pose—Shalabhasana
Lay on the belly with the hands clasped behind the back. Gently lift the shoulders off the ground, and if that feels okay, lift the feet too. Keep the gaze forward while feeling the back muscles engage, careful to hold the head in a neutral position to avoid crunching the neck. Hold for five breaths and release, resting and then repeating three more times.
This pose strengthens the upper back and neck, and encourages proper alignment. If you’d like to increase the intensity for additional strength building, stretch the arms out in front of you, lifting the entire body off the mat for about five breaths.
4. Supported backbend
Counteract all those hours spent hunching over your desk with a restorative back bend. There are a few options for this pose. The first option is to find a thin blanket or towel. Roll the blanket or towel up lengthwise, and place it under the shoulders, where a bra strap might go. Lay on top of the roll for anywhere from three to ten minutes, allowing the back to release.
Those with stiff backs will want to keep the roll very thin, perhaps even placing a second blanket underneath the head if it feels like the head is tilting back too far.
Another version is to take two yoga blocks if you have them. Yoga blocks can be purchased relatively inexpensively at most sporting goods stores. The most accessible version of this pose is to place one block at the lowest level, with the widest side flat on the ground, underneath the shoulder area. Place the second block at the second-highest level, with the longest thin side on the ground, underneath the head. Rest here for three to ten minutes.
Once the back begins to open up, experiment with different levels of the blocks to deepen the back bend. Go slowly and give the body plenty of time to adjust. This posture doesn’t build strength, but helps to improve posture.
7. Percutaneous discectomy for neck pain relief
Issues with spinal discs, those important buffers between vertebrae, are often the root cause of neck pain. Herniated discs in the cervical spine are those that have slipped or ruptured. Fortunately, a minimally invasive procedure known as percutaneous discectomy has been shown to effectively provide neck pain relief. The outpatient technique lasts about an hour and features a relatively quick recovery time.
What is percutaneous discectomy?
The word “percutaneous” means through the skin, while “discectomy” means surgical removal of a disc, or a portion of it, that is thought to be causing the pain.
Spinal discs are composed of hard, rubbery outsides and jelly-like centers. When discs become herniated, part of the jelly-like center leaks through a crack in the tough exterior. This leakage creates pressure on sensitive areas in the cervical spine, leading to pain.
During a percutaneous discectomy, a doctor makes a tiny slit in the skin and guides a small needle to the herniated disc with a fluoroscope. A fluoroscope is an X-ray-based machine used to see under a patient’s skin in real time. Once at the correct location, the doctor uses heat or radio waves to remove the disc material and reduce pressure.
Patients stay awake during the outpatient procedure, although local anesthetic is used to prevent pain. Because the procedure is so minimally invasive, most patients do not experience a great deal of discomfort. The site of the incision may be sore for up to 2 or 3 days, and may be treated with a heating pad or cold pack.
Patients should plan on resting for at least a day after the procedure to let their body heal.
The research on percutaneous discectomy
Studies have shown cervical percutaneous discectomy to be both safe and effective at reducing neck pain. A study published in the Journal of Spinal Disorders and Techniques found nearly 91% of pain patients experienced a good outcome during a 12-month follow-up period. Researchers said the procedure offered a safer alternative to more invasive procedures while also requiring less time for recuperation.
The procedure also shows potential for long-term neck pain relief. A study published in the journal Pain Practice followed patients who underwent the percutaneous discectomy procedure for two years, and found the positive results endured.
8. Stem cell therapy for neck pain
Finally, watch as Dr. Tory McJunkin from Arizona Pain Specialists explains how stem cell therapy may be the treatment that can help relieve neck pain naturally and quickly.
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