Neck Pain Guide
Dr. Ryan Hosler & Dr. Jen Hosler
Your Guide to Neck Pain Recovery
1. We Understand Your Frustration.
Neck pain is terrible. We get it. We’ve both had random flare-ups of neck pain and it can be debilitating. But the good news is we’ve overcome it. And if we can overcome neck pain, you can too!
We’ve treated hundreds of patients with neck pain. After all, neck pain is a very common complaint in the United States. In fact, it’s the second most common complaint we treat in our office (the first is low back pain). But just because you currently have neck pain, doesn’t mean that you have to live with it. Don’t let your neck pain define you. With the proper guidance and support, you can overcome your neck pain and get back to living the active life you want and deserve.
Having neck pain isn’t just a physical thing. It also takes a toll on you mentally. Being sidelined from your sport or being unable to participate in enjoyable activities can lead to depression and anxiety. It may take away from your social life because you’re not able to partake in group fitness classes or go out running with your friends. It may even keep you in bed with the lights off, away from all human interaction. If you currently have neck pain, you unfortunately know exactly what we’re talking about.
About 70% of people will experience some sort of neck pain in throughout their life. But here’s the thing: you are much more stronger and resilient than you may think. You will get through this! You won’t live with neck pain for the rest of your life. You may just need some professional assistance and guidance along the way to help overcome it. And that’s the purpose of this guide. To help you along your journey of overcoming your current neck pain complaints and getting you back to the life you want and deserve.
2. Common Causes of Neck Pain.
Before we get into the common causes of neck pain, let us reiterate something: you’re not alone. Again, nearly 70% of the population will experience some sort of neck pain in their lifetime. And about 50% of the population has had some sort of neck pain in the past year! But guess what? Not everyone lives with this pain forever. And you don’t have to either.
When you do the correct things, and in the correct sequence, you can overcome your neck pain. And you may just overcome it way faster than you ever imagined.
Now, you may have heard a list of things that can cause neck pain from your friends or from “doctor” Google. But when it comes down to it, having poor movement patterns is the cause of most neck pain problems (and the cause of most muscle and joint related problems, for that matter). This is why we take a movement-based approach to helping our patients overcome their neck pain complaints.
3. Why Does How You Move Matter?
Unfortunately, most physical therapists and chiropractors only assess and treat the site of pain instead of actually finding the true causes of your pain. If they’re lucky, the site of pain is the true cause, but this is rarely the case. This is because most muscluloskeletal pain is related to a movement problem. And a movement problem requires a movement-based solution.
So instead of guessing what the problem is and solely treating the site of pain like most providers do, it’s important to take a step back and look at the greater picture: how you move.
For example, maybe your neck is overcompensating for your upper back and shoulders, causing too much stress being placed on your neck muscles and joints. Or maybe your thoracic spine (upper back) is stiff and doesn’t move well, leading to your neck moving too much. Or maybe you have an overall lack of neck mobility and range of motion that’s causing your neck pain.
Whatever the case, it’s important to look at the entire body and how it moves because everything in our body is connected and affects its neighboring parts. And as you may have imagined, the human body is amazing at compensating and adapting. But unfortunately, when parts of our body start taking on too much stress and are overworked/overloaded, things like pain and injury can occur. In your case, neck pain.
4. Breaking The Pain Cycle.
The key to overcoming your neck pain starts with breaking the pain cycle early and often.
What does that mean?
Pain is simply a warning sign from the brain telling your body that something is wrong. Think of pain as an alarm. This alarm warns your body of danger (or potential danger) and is asking for a fix. But when you don’t fix what’s wrong and continually perform movements that cause your neck pain, this alarm starts going off more frequently. And eventually if you start ignoring the alarm altogether, it stays on all of the time.
So how do you break the pain cycle?
Initially, you have to avoid movements that are causing your neck pain. When you start experiencing less pain, you interrupt the pain cycle and your body’s alarm returns to normal. It’s that simple once you identify the movements and activities that are contributing to your neck pain.
5. Find Out What Movements Cause Your Pain.
Finding out which movements cause your neck pain is the first step for formulating a game plan to overcome your pain and breaking the pain cycle. Remember, this step is very important can’t be skipped. The earlier you start identifying painful movements, and the more consistent you are avoiding them, the better off you’ll be.
Identifying all aggravating factors is a very important step in our history taking process and within our initial examination. While it can definitely be done on your own, having professional help speeds up the process significantly.
While you’re identifying movements that are painful, it’s important to note which movements aren’t painful. Pain-free movements provide us with fantastic information as well and allow you to keep moving throughout the recovery process in a pain-free manner. They also allow you to continue training in the gym throughout the process in a pain-free manner!
6. Find Out What Movements Are Pain-Free.
Finding out what movements don’t aggravate your symptoms and cause pain is the second most important step. These movements are what will keep you active throughout your rehab and recovery process.
Now, these don’t have to be neck specific movements. In fact, we encourage you to play around with movements that don’t involve the neck. For example, instead of stretching your neck all of the time because it temporarily feels better, how about you start working on your thoracic spine mobility and/or shoulder mobility? Additionally, you may try utilizing exercises that provide your neck with more stability.
If you’re not sure what exercises and movements to try, that’s what we’re here for! We take the guess-work out of the entire rehab process, which often results in time and money saved.
7. Create Your Game Plan.
Now that you have an understanding of why movement matters, what movements to avoid in your rehab process, and what movements you can still perform, it’s important to make a game plan.
And it’s even more important to stick to the plan that you’ve created! Rehab is a process, so don’t expect your neck pain to resolve in a week’s time.
There are a ton of different ways you can treat your neck pain, including massage therapy, acupuncture, routine chiropractic adjustments, and other techniques, but unfortunately these are just temporary pain-relief techniques. There’s nothing wrong with them, and they’re fantastic tools, but they’re not fixing the root cause of your problem: your movement limitations.
The best and most researched way of overcoming neck pain is through exercise and staying physically active. This is where the true “magic” happens and makes long-term changes in your movement and musculoskeletal health.
It’s important to realize that your game plan and rehab process may have ups and downs (good days and bad days). This is a totally normal part of healing and overcoming your neck pain, but it’s important to take note of what may have aggravated your symptoms. It could have been something you did the day prior or something you did the day of. Either way, it’s important to continually reassess how you’re feeling and make changes as necessary.
Your game plan should include specific exercises that are prescribed from your physical therapist or chiropractor to provide pain-relief, improve your mobility, improve your stability, or a combination of all the above. These exercises are very important to perform, but it’s equally important to make modifications to your daily lifestyle as needed (like avoiding certain movements the cause pain as we talked about earlier).
Let’s address some common questions we hear about neck pain treatment:
“Should I be stretching my neck?”
This is a tricky one. Because some types of neck pain respond well to stretching. And other types of neck pain are made worse by stretching. It all depends on what your individual limitations and causes of your pain are.
So why could stretching your neck not be the best solution? Well, believe it or not, your neck muscles are likely tight for a reason. But just because they’re tight, doesn’t mean that they need stretched. In fact, these muscles could be tight because they’re guarding your neck and providing it with a sense of stability and safeness. If you stretch these tight muscles, you take that stability away and may cause your symptoms to flare-up again.
If you feel that stretching your neck only provides you with temporarily relief for 10-15 minutes, then this may be the case for you. So instead of continually stretching your neck, you may benefit from trying some sort of strengthening/stability exercise for your neck muscles.
“Should I get a massage?”
Absolutely! Massages feel amazing. Who doesn’t love a gentle, relaxing massage? Getting a massage is a great idea to help your neck muscles relax.
But like we mentioned before, it’s not a long-term fix because it’s not getting to the root causes of your problem: your movement.
If you find yourself continually going to your massage therapist for neck pain relief, it’s time to dig deeper to find out the true causes of your problem. And we’re here to help you do just that!
“Should I ice my neck?”
In general, our recommendation is to actually utilize heat instead! We’re not sure about you, but usually cold tends to tighten up the muscles even more. And if your muscles are already tight and stiff, this may just contribute to the tightness and stiffness. It’s a vicious cycle!
On the other hand, heat tends to relax your muscles and make you feel more loose. But if that’s not the case for you, then utilize what works! Everyone is slightly different, but heat tends to be our go-to recommendation for neck pain.
But just remember, utilizing heat is not the long-term solution! If you continue to find yourself utilizing heat (or ice) for your neck pain, then something isn’t working. And if this is you, we highly recommend that you dig deeper into finding out the root causes of your neck pain. Remember, we’re here to help you with this!
With all this being said, we won’t leave you without a generalized game plan.
So what should you do?
First, you need to remove the movements/activities that are causing your neck pain. Secondly, you need exercises that are prescribed for your individual movement limitations to help you improve your mobility and stability limitations. Thirdly, you need advice on which movements and activities to modify or regress so you can stay active and moving throughout your rehab process. Finally, you need a rehab professional like ourselves to help guide you along the way, provide you with pain-relieving manual therapies, continually modify your exercises, and set you on your way for living independently.
8. What To Expect From Us.
We’re here for you along your entire rehab journey.
From the moment you walk through our office door for your initial assessment, you’ll be with us one-on-one for at least an hour. This hour will allow us to thoroughly gather a solid medical history, create personalized goals, and assess your neck pain through a detailed movement and physical assessment.
Following the history and physical assessment, we’ll educate you on the causes of your neck pain and formulate a game plan to get you back to living an active, pain-free lifestyle.
We will also provide you with an estimated number of visits (and time frame) for you to completely resolve your neck pain. This will include the number of visits you need per week, which is typically never more than 1-2 times per week.
Your treatment and care will be individualized to your personal goals, wants, and needs. Often, this looks like a mixture of hands-on manual therapies, stretching, joint mobilizations and adjustments, and of course, corrective exercises.
Following your initial visit with us, you can expect 30 minute or 60 minute one-on-one follow-ups with us. Spending this amount of time with us in an intimate, one-on-one setting is how we get the results and outcomes you’re looking for.
If you aren’t sure if we’re a great fit for you, then reach out to us!
We offer all our potential patients the option to have a free phone consultation with us to make sure we’re a great fit to work together.
9. What We Expect From You.
If you’re reading this, we hope you’re already our ideal patient, especially if you’ve made it this far through the guide.
We expect all of our patients to be invested in their health. If you’re experiencing neck pain, you need to prioritize your health above all things. We can only do so much as your healthcare and rehab provider to help you overcome your neck pain.
To get the most out of your rehab (and actually achieve your goals), you have to be invested fully in the rehab process as well. We must work as a team and you must hold your own with your at-home homework and lifestyle modifications. After all, there are 168 hours in a week and you will only be spending 1-2 hours with us each week.
That’s only 0.6-1.2% of your weekly time spent with us!
As you can see, you have to put in the work. You can’t expect us to “magically” fix your neck pain. You must be invested in the process. And if you’ve had your neck pain for months or years, you must not expect it to magically disappear after 1-3 visits. It’s just not plausible for a long-term strategy.
10. Will I Need Diagnostic Imaging?
Believe it or not, diagnostic imaging is overutilized in the physical medicine field. All too often people are running straight to their medical doctor for an MRI or X-ray of their neck pain. Unfortunately, all they’re doing is wasting their time and money.
Instead, your best bet is to see a physical therapist or chiropractor first. They’ll be the one to decide whether or not you’d benefit from having imaging performed based upon the results of your physical examination and history.
In most cases, you won’t need any diagnostic imaging. But if things aren’t adding up in your physical exam, then we may send you out for further imaging and testing.
Here’s when we think it’s a good time to have diagnostic imaging performed:
- If there are any red flags found in your physical exam.
- If a solid trial of conservative care has been performed without much success and we feel we need more information.
- If things just don’t add up in your first visit.
11. Red Flags.
Sometimes neck pain is a symptom of something much more serious.
It’s unlikely you have to worry about these, but about small percentage of the population does. So it’s something we can’t ignore as healthcare providers. If you’re currently experiencing any of these symptoms, don’t ignore them as they can be life-threatening and something much more serious than neck pain.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you must see a doctor or licensed healthcare professional for help:
- History of cancer
- Significant trauma
- History of vascular disease
- Nausea or vomiting
- Visual or auditory disturbances
- Prolonged use of steroids or drugs that inhibit the immune system
- Ongoing infection or fever
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bowel or bladder dysfunction
- Major motor weakness in the upper extremity (such as wrist drop)
- Gross balance issues (tripping/falling all of a sudden)
- Neurological findings lasting longer than one month
- Progressive worsening numbness in the upper extremities
- Pain that is not reproducible with movement
These red flags, coupled with your physical examination findings and medical history, may warrant the need for diagnostic imaging and further testing. They require immediate attention and intervention.
12. Finding A Good Doctor/Therapist.
You should look for a few things when trying to find the right healthcare provider for you. Especially a rehab provider to help you overcome your neck pain.
These are the qualities we possess ourselves and feel that all healthcare providers should possess as well.
- They should spend plenty of time with you to find a solution.
- They focus on your concerns, priorities, and goals.
- They actually perform physical tests.
- They allow you to be independent.
- They find ways to keep you active and moving.
- They continually progress and modify your rehab game plan as you improve.
13. Final Thoughts.
Thank you for taking time to read our neck pain guide! We’re here for you to help you overcome your complaint and live a stronger, more resilient life.
If we can be of any assistance along your rehab journey, we hope you give us a call or email us. We’re here to get you back to living the life you want and deserve.
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