Best Ways to Find Neck Pain Relief

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) to treat pain or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain and inflammation are typically the initial treatment of choice for neck pain relief.

Applying cold (especially in the initial stages of pain) and heat (in the later stages) can be helpful. Bed rest, reducing physical activity and immobilizing the neck with a cervical collar may relieve pain. (Cervical collars are available at surgical supply stores but should be used for no more than 10 days to avoid weakening the neck muscles.)

Range-of-motion exercises and massage also can be helpful for neck pain relief. A physical therapist can teach you appropriate neck stretches and exercises for the shoulders and upper back to help ease neck pain and prevent future episodes. Your doctor or physical therapist may also instruct you on how to correct detrimental aspects of your posture or the setup of your office.

If two weeks of conservative treatment does not alleviate the pain, muscle relaxants or ongoing physical therapy may be recommended. Another treatment option is a cervical traction device, which uses a system of weights and pulleys to help relieve pressure on the neck. The device is available at surgical supply stores.

For individuals whose neck pain appears to be caused by stress or depression, stress-management techniques, antidepressant medication or both are often useful. In addition, the doctor may prescribe corticosteroid medications (either oral or injected), which can help reduce inflammation.

Even people with disk herniation or mild spinal stenosis should be treated first with conservative measures if the pain does not radiate beyond the neck.

If no treatment has relieved the neck pain after eight weeks or if imaging studies indicate serious structural problems, you may need to consult with a spinal surgeon (a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon). Surgery involves relieving pressure on the spinal cord or the pinched nerve. Up to 90 percent of people who undergo surgery experience significant neck pain relief.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.