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How To Know When Neck Pain Is Serious

woman holds neck in pain

Most of us have had a morning where we’ve woken up with a dull ache in the back of our neck, feeling as though we’ve slept in a funny position.

If you rely heavily on computers, phones and tablets at work, this is sadly just a fact of modern life.

And with more of us than ever living a sedentary desk-based lifestyle, neck injuries and so-called “tech-neck” are on the rise.

But it’s not just screen use that’s to blame; neck pain is one of the most common issues GP’s deal with, and there are a variety of reasons why it can occur.

We spoke to pain expert Dr Roger Henderson to find out some of the causes and treatments of neck pain – from the mild to the more serious.

What are the main causes of neck pain?

“It’s usually a combination of poor posture and lots of tension around the area.

People who sit at a desk all the time tend to slump rather than sitting with their backs straight, which puts strain on the back and builds tension in the neck and upper shoulder muscles.

This usually results in your typical stiff, painful sore neck and tension headache.

Physiotherapist examining a female patient's neck
GP examining a female patients neck in a clinic (Thinkstock/PA)

“People who sleep badly, because they have the incorrect number of pillows or an uncomfortable mattress, can wake up in the morning with quite a stiff, painful neck because of the angle their head has been resting at in the night.

The most extreme example of that is something called a wry neck (or torticollis). You’ll literally go to bed and wake up in the morning and your neck will be at a painfully tilted angle that you can’t straighten out.”

Is it true that over-exercising could also be a cause of neck pain?

“Absolutely. People who do a lot of breaststroke in swimming, people who play rugby or contact sports, and even people who do things like archery, where they’re in a certain position holding tension for a little while, are at increased risk.

If you’re not stretching out after the exercise when you’re cooling down, you’ll likely feel a lot of tension in those neck muscles.”

What are the most common neck problems you see?

“90% of the patients I see have general neck stiffness and tenderness, which is often either acute or chronic muscle tension that has built up around the neck.”

How do you know if your neck pain is serious enough to see a doctor?

“The danger sign to look out for is if you get neck pain that will not settle with painkillers.

Also be wary of any other associated symptoms like numbness to the arms or hands, any loss of sensation or really severe headaches, especially if those headaches occur when you bend your head forward.

These are all indications that you should probably seek the advice of a professional sooner rather than later.”

What steps can you take to avoid neck pain?

“Do simple neck exercises to relieve any tension that’s built up. If you find you’re prone to low-level neck pain, use things like wheat bags [a heated pad for the neck], because warmth and heat are a good way of relaxing the  muscles.

“If you are experiencing mild pain, a painkiller such as Solpadeine Plus (£5.99, can provide short-term relief.

For most people, simple measures are all that is needed, but if the pain persists, make sure to consult your GP.”

What treatment options can a professional offer?

“A GP will be able to give you advice about simple neck exercises and simple painkillers, which would usually do the job. 

If they feel that there’s a long-standing problem with the neck being slightly maligned, they may talk about physiotherapy, which can be very effective with neck pain. 

Acupuncture can also be extremely helpful. It’s one of the few natural alternatives which has a degree of scientific evidence behind it.”

What preventative advice would you give to people with office jobs?

“If you’re looking up at the screen or your neck’s at an angle, it’s not a comfortable position for the neck.

If you’re typing at an uncomfortable position for six to eight hours, you’re going to be putting yourself under considerable risk of neck spasm.

“Ask your employer to give you a desk assessment: you need the correct chair and the correct eye level for your computer screen.

Make sure you’re also not cradling your phone between your head and your shoulder (this can cause all manner of pain) and that you’re taking regular, mini breaks just to stretch yourself out.”

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