Your Guide To Neck Pain Recovery

By Dr. Ben

Don’t let neck pain and the symptoms that come along with it interfere with your life! Read on to better understand how you can overcome this issue!

Neck pain can be a serious burden on your quality of life. It can cause unnecessary suffering for days, weeks, months and even years!


But besides that, it can really hamper your productivity and leisure time or even have it come grinding to a halt. This includes spending time with your family or playing sports. It can even interfere with the simple everyday things we do. Getting a good night's rest, looking over your shoulder while driving. Even just sitting in front of your computer to finish the work you have to do!


And it’s not just physical -- being sidelined with neck pain can lead to anxiety, depression, and become mentally exhausting. Here’s why:


Avoiding the fun stuff you normally like to do -- or even the simple everyday activities -- can make you feel depressed. And even the anticipation about doing those activities that might cause pain or apprehension can also manifest all sorts of anxiety or worry.


If you’ve never experienced neck pain at any point, you’re lucky. And chances are that you or someone you care about will experience neck pain in the future (although I really hope you don’t!). Here are some stats: 

  • Some studies have found that up to 70% of people will experience neck pain in their lifetime.
  • Up to 50% of people say they had neck pain sometime in the last year.
  • About 10-20% of the population is suffering from neck pain at any given time.
  • Recurrence of neck pain is high. Up to 85% of people who experience neck pain report having it again at some point within 1 to 5 years.

This is how common neck issues are in the modern world right now! But having neck pain is not something you can’t overcome. You can overcome this. You WILL overcome it...


With the right kind of approach, of course.


I’m not just going to leave you hanging. I’ll cover in depth what proper neck pain management is like. You can use this info to take back control of your life without having to suffer.


Soon you will be free from neck pain -- and back to the life that you loved! Maybe even better than before!

The Three Pillars

These are the ‘three pillars’ to recover from neck pain:

  • Identifying Painful Movements
  • Identifying Pain-Free Movements
  • Staying Active with a Comprehensive Plan

There’s more to it, but yes there are 3 simple steps!


neck pain

You’ll want help from a licensed professional to guide you through this. I’ll also tell you how to choose the right healthcare professional -- and the kinds of questions they should be asking you along the way.

1. Identifying Painful Movement

This is more involved than “It hurts when I turn my neck” and the doctor telling you “Just don’t do that”!

A good clinician will take you through a comprehensive clinical and movement assessment. This will identify all the issues, movements and postures that cause your pain. Sometimes there are specific activities or times of the day that cause pain every time. You’ll want to make sure and keep that in mind.

For example, someone could tell me, “Every time I try to look over my shoulder while driving, I experience pain! I have to turn my whole body and keep my neck straight.”

Or: “I’m having trouble finding a good sleeping position and getting good rest because my neck hurts!”

For the more athletic folks, it may be, “It doesn’t usually bother me but every time I do any overhead lifting it really flares up and limits my training!”

Your clinical and movement assessment should be grounded around these scenarios that are interfering with your life. It should thoroughly be addressed.

The assessment should also categorize your neck movements into simple directions. Most movements will be within one of these categories: flexion, extension, rotation, side bending, retraction or protraction. This is simply flexing forward, extending backward, rotating side-to-side, bending side-to-side, and bringing in your chin or poking it out.

Using this method, we can identify which specific or category of movements are getting in your way -- the ones that are causing you significant distress. Once we know those, you’ll want to temporarily avoid them so your neck can recover. 

Pain: Your Body’s Alarm System

neck pain

Pain is like your body’s alarm system. The alarm tells you that something is wrong so you can fix it or learn to avoid doing something that may cause trouble in the future.

But when you repeatedly do movements that cause distress, the alarm is going off constantly. After a while, the alarm can become recalibrated!

It gets tuned up -- thinking it needs to be on high alert.

So you’ll want to temporarily avoid the movements that are bringing about your pain. When your body experiences less of it, we interrupt the awful pain cycle. And the alarm will naturally go back to its natural setting. This approach lets you recover much faster.

Fast, easy, and simple. That’s what you’re aiming for!

The information from the clinical and movement assessment -- made as simple as possible -- lets us make easy modifications so you can go about your life while experiencing less pain. This is only temporary. But it’ll allow your body to recover. 

2. Identify Pain-free Movements

You read that correctly!

We need to know what movements do NOT cause pain. This is just as important as identifying the painful movements. Maybe even more!

Because when you have neck pain, you're limited.

You feel like you can't do what you want or need to do. You don’t want too much of anything out of fear it might cause pain.

We assess your pain-free movements so you can get on with living your life. We find ways to make simple movement changes that don’t hurt.

This gives you back freedom to do your everyday tasks.

And when you can do that, you’ll be restoring your body’s confidence!

If your doc isn’t working hard to find ways that you CAN move in addition to the ways that are painful, they’re missing the boat.

Having a clear understanding of both of these things helps to take the mystery out of your neck pain. This will relieve much of the mental worry that comes with it, helping you recover faster, and allow you to move on with your life!

More Movement Options

A very simple but incredibly effective way to help you find more pain-free movement is to open up your movement options in other areas of your body.

When dealing with neck pain, this means loosening up your shoulders and upper back. Using simple movements can take a large burden off of your neck and provide you with the relief you so desperately are looking for.

Your clinician should be able to help you find the best movement options and ways to achieve them. This is another reason why a clinical movement assessment will be a large part of your recovery process!

3. Staying Active with a Comprehensive Plan

You must have a plan. And stay on top of it!

There are a lot of methods of treatment to use for neck pain, including bodywork like massage and acupuncture. While doing this can feel good and give some relief, the most reliable way to beat neck pain is good old fashioned movement and exercise. This what I like to call the ‘steak and lobster’ of your plan.

Before we move on, let’s discuss a couple of questions I often get about other treatments:

Should I be stretching?

Unfortunately, stretching for some types of neck pain is oftentimes a bad idea!


Stretching may provide some relief when you have tight muscles. But doing too much stretching can often aggravate the underlying problems that you’re dealing with.


Also, you may have to get into a painful position to get that relief. This is common if you haven’t done a proper assessment to discover the painful and pain-free movements or positions.


That means you might get some relief when stretching but you could be making things worse in the long run. Don’t trade a bit of comfort for a long time dealing with pain!


Instead, you should be using easy pain-free movements and exercises that help relax your tight muscles. Ones that won’t put you in positions that could make things worse. And will help you get out of pain faster!

What about getting a massage?

neck massage

Do you like massages? If you answered yes, then the answer is always, YES!  


Massages feel great. They are excellent for relaxation.  Massage can be very beneficial for providing relief in most pain cases. They have a lot of benefits that can help you recover from neck pain.


Getting a massage is awesome!

 

But just using general massage as the main method of recovering from neck pain is not a good plan in the long run. It doesn’t address what caused the pain. And it really can’t keep the issue from coming back.

Should I at least be icing my back?!

My general recommendation is don’t use ice for neck pain -- use heat instead!

Neck pain may cause your muscles to be tight and locked up. This is a protective response from your brain. Sometimes ice can make the muscles of the neck even worse. You don't want more tightness. That can cause even more unnecessary discomfort.

Heat can help relax your muscles. And help things calm down a bit. So I usually recommend heat instead. Remember, your situation may be different so make sure to keep that in mind and use what works for YOU!

If you’ve been using ice and it’s helping. Or if you used heat and it doesn’t help. Then keep using ice!


If you've been using any form of therapy including massaging, stretching, etc.-- and it doesn't help -- then stop wasting your time using it. And if it seems to make things worse, stop immediately!

Designing Your Personal Recovery Plan

Let’s discuss what a movement plan should look like. Here is a framework for what you should expect.

road to recovery
Goals

Your short-term and long-term goals should be at the front and center of your recovery plan. This makes things much easier to stick to.

For example, your goal could be recovering from this and getting back to your normal life as soon as possible. If that’s the case then your plan should be designed to reflect that and be specific to your lifestyle and the details that come along with it.

This process must be as simple as possible. It's going to be far easier for you to stick a plan if you have a goal. And if it's easy, you’re more likely to stay consistent!

Your Current Fitness Level

Your rehab plan will depend on your current fitness and exercise levels.

If you're a competitive jiu jitsu athlete, you’re going to need a different plan than someone who just wants to get out of pain.

It’s perfectly fine if you haven’t been active much lately! Your plan should and will be tailored to your current abilities.

Personal Situation

Are you a student? Are you an engineer that works at a desk for 12-hour or even 16-hour days? In any case, you have specific needs based on your specific situation.

Busier folks may have to incorporate exercise throughout the day when they can. That means it has to be planned in a way that's convenient for them to get it accomplished. 

Optimal Outcome

The optimal outcome is that you don’t have to suffer from neck pain in the future. And if you do, you’ll know how to get out of it and quickly move on with your life.

This should be the type of long-term thinking that is part of your plan. Helping you recover the most efficient way possible. And making sure it’s sustainable.

You don’t want to end up on the “injury roller coaster” -- where you're consistent and things get better, but you slip back a bit and things get worse. This can often become a yo-yo effect -- where you're going up and down through good times and bad.

You don’t want that!

Independence

The plan should put you in charge of your recovery. This will accelerate your ability to recover. Why?

Because you get to feel better at your own pace and do so multiple times per day. You don’t need someone standing next to you each and every time you want to feel good!

And this keeps the relief coming. Which makes you feel better every day and helps keep you consistent.

That leads to the next important topic:

Consistency

If there is one thing you should be focusing on the most when it comes to recovery… it’s Consistency!


A couple easy pain relieving exercises or movements -- spread throughout the day -- are much better than long sessions only a few times per week.

exercise

These don’t have to be complicated! They just have to make you feel better. The simpler the better.


That way they can quickly give you relief without interrupting your day. This makes sure you’re getting consistent input that feels good all day long. 


As those feel good movements become consistent, that pain alarm system can start re-calibrating back to your norm. This way you’ll feel better, faster and for longer!

Consistency “feel good” input is always going to win.

Keep Moving and Improving

You can and should maintain an active lifestyle while recovering from neck pain.

Whether you’re an athlete or weekend warrior -- your plan should help keep you doing what you love. NOT keep you sidelined!

This could be something like modifying your normal exercises -- such as a weightlifter that can’t overhead press with a barbell. There are plenty of exercises that can still be done to achieve the same goal. It could also be simply changing the sets and reps they are using.

If you’ve had a proper assessment, this is almost always possible.

The right healthcare provider will not only be able to work your life into the recovery process -- he or she will be motivated to communicate with your coach, trainer or strength coach to implement it.

I’m almost always able to find ways for people like you to operate above their baseline level of activity. I’ve helped many people become faster, stronger and better at surfing, jiu-jitsu, and weightlifting -- all during their recovery!

You don’t have to put progress on the back burner.

Active Recovery

Prioritize staying active and exercise beyond just passive care. Bodywork = passive treatments are done to you -- rather than you doing them yourself.

These are things like massage therapy, spinal adjustments or joint mobilizations, or any variety of fancy machines you see in a traditional rehab office. And that includes decompression machines or those cervical collar traction machines.

Don’t get me wrong -- passive care like that is an excellent supplement! But your recovery plan should always be centered around staying active and exercise.

Think of it like this -- the main plan of exercise is like the steak and lobster of your fancy dinner. Passive care is the sides.

If you take away the steak and lobster -- you’re left with just some soup and veggies. Maybe a salad. You’ll still have something good to eat, but it could be so much better! There is a reason people pay top dollar for that steak and lobster. Don’t sell yourself short 😉

Prioritize staying active to give you the best long-term outcomes. Put yourself in control of your recovery!

finding doctor

Red Flags -- See a Doctor!

Sometimes neck pain can just be a symptom of a more sinister situation.

It’s unlikely that you have to worry about this -- a small % of the population has neck pain from reasons like the ones listed here. But they are serious and should be considered in all cases of neck pain.

Don’t ignore these red flags if you have these symptoms. They can lead to catastrophic issues -- much worse than just neck pain!

If you have any of these, you absolutely must see a licensed healthcare professional as soon as possible:

  • History of cancer
  • History of vascular disease
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ongoing infection or fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Prolonged use of steroids or any drugs that are meant to inhibit your immune system
  • Significant trauma (such as a motor vehicle accident or whiplash incident that caused the pain)
  • Prone to bone fractures (potential osteoporosis or osteopenia)
  • Bladder or bowel problems that coincide with your back pain
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms (especially if both the upper and lower body)
  • Major motor weakness in your extremities (such as a weak grip)
  • Severely limited spinal range of motion
  • Severe tenderness
  • Any neurologic findings persisting beyond one month
  • Visual or auditory disturbances
  • Severe or new headaches
  • Trouble with balance or coordination
  • Chest pain, unusual sweating, or shortness of breath

When You May Need An MRI

Many times people run out and get an MRI immediately when they have neck pain. But in most cases, this can be a waste of time and money!

Your doctor will be able to figure out if you need an MRI. If there are signs, such as the red flags from above, or your pain doesn’t improve over the course of treatment, that’s when you’ll want to use imaging.

In many cases, a thorough clinical assessment and medical history will be much more important.

What Your Clinical Examination and Assessment Will Look Like

The first part is a thorough medical history, clinical examination, and movement assessment by a licensed healthcare professional. That’s a professional who has been extensively trained and has passed some sort of professional licensing process.

There are a lot of bright and caring professionals out there that can help recover from pain -- trainers, strength coaches or massage therapists. Additionally, some movement practitioners like yoga and Pilates instructors.

They’re all great at helping in some cases of neck pain -- but they are not trained or legally allowed to perform a clinical assessment! It's simply out of their scope. If they happen to miss something, it will be a gamble with your health.

Get examined by a licensed healthcare professional. It's just not worth the risk to skip this step.

Questions That Should Be Asked During a History

A ‘history’ is the story behind your neck issue.

This will consist of you explaining what you are going through and followed up by questions your doctor will ask you. The history will guide your care, the clinical exam, and movement assessment.

This is the entire background story surrounding your pain -- all of those data points that led up to and currently surround your problem. This helps us get a complete understanding to form your plan.

This is just as important as the physical exam!

Your clinician should take ample time to know your story and understand everything going on. They should take the time to listen to you!

If they don’t take the time to do this or if you feel like they’re rushing it, you’re probably in the wrong place.

Here are some of the questions and follow-up questions that you should be asked:

  • Where exactly is your pain?
  • When did your pain begin? Was it a specific incident or did it come on gradually? 
  • Is the pain constant? Does it come and go? Is it getting any better or worse?
  • What does your pain feel like? Common descriptors of pain sensations are sharp, dull or achy.
  • Rate your pain from 0 - 10. Does the rating change after different activities or time of day?
  • Are there any medications or movements that make your pain better? Worse?
  • Do you have any numbness, tingling, or weakness -- anywhere in your body that is associated with the neck pain? 
  • Have you been seen by anybody for this in the past? What helped and what didn’t? 

Functional Questions that Create Your Plan

​How is this neck pain interfering with your life? What can you not do now that you could do before without pain?

This question is very important to help guide your plan!
This includes everyday activities -- getting ready in the morning, driving, your training or exercise routine. How is this neck pain stopping you?

Getting you out of pain will definitely be one of your primary goals. You’ll also want to make sure that you're able to go about your life. And get back to your everyday activities again.

Understanding how your neck pain is getting in the way of your life is important to consider. You and your priorities should always be the focus of your plan.

​What are your short and long-term goals?

Your plan needs to revolve around your short-term and long-term goals. This is extremely important!

In the short-term, your goal could just be to get out of pain.

Your long-term goal could be to work to never have to suffer neck pain again -- and not have to worry about neck pain interfering with your life.

Here’s a real-life example of short-term and long-term plans:

You have an important event coming up. It’s a jiu jitsu competition that you need to train hard for.

Your long-term goal is to get the gold medal. But your short-term goal is to be able to consistently train 5 days a week.

You can still accomplish both of these with a proper plan!

neck pain

The process of getting a proper history takes time.

In my office, this usually takes 20 to 30 minutes. I need to completely understand your story in order to help you the best I can. Following your history, a clinical examination and assessment is probably going to be another 20 minutes or so.

The provider you're working with needs to spend the right amount of time listening to your story. They should be asking you a ton of questions.

In my opinion, you’re not getting the care you deserve if you’re being rushed through either part of this process.

What to Look for in a Healthcare Provider

A major component of getting out of neck pain is finding the right healthcare provider. This person will have the ability to help guide you through this whole process.

In this part, I’ll tell you what to look for!

These are what I believe are the qualities of a good healthcare provider. This is what I tell the people I care about when they need to find someone.

A quality healthcare provider...

​Spends plenty of time with you.

As we discussed above, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked. A 5-minute or 10-minute appointment will not cut it. There’s no way they’ll be able to give you the care you deserve.

There’s simply no way they can develop a specific plan for you in that short amount of time. I wouldn’t recommend any healthcare provider that limits their visits to 5-10 minutes. If you find yourself in front of a provider like this, RUN!

​Performs physical tests

A thorough clinical assessment must involve physical tests. These can help identify what is relevant to your situation and rules out what is not. This also takes time, because it’s important that nothing is missed!

​Focuses on your concerns and priorities.

What matters most to you is what matters most of all! This needs to be a primary concern of your healthcare provider. Your concerns and priorities will determine your goals. Someone that isn’t listening won’t create a plan around your needs.

​Lets you be independent.

Good healthcare providers always figure out what you can do to help yourself. They won’t keep you relying on them forever to get out of pain. 

​Doesn’t rely on gadgets

Your treatment plan should not revolve around gizmos and gadgets. No one should rely on a magic cure-all machine or tool to treat your pain!

The person you need is going to prioritize an active approach and put you in charge of your recovery.

​Maintains focus on your personal goals

They’ll constantly focus on your personal goals and revisit them to make sure you’re on track. 

​Finds ways to keep you moving

They will get you moving! In ways without the pain of course. Your ability to move will be a priority.

​Continuously updates the plan as you progress

Things always change. And your plan will likely change as you move forward. Your doc will be prepared for that and make sure you are too.

Feel free take these questions and ask a prospective healthcare provider, “I’m looking for someone that does this...Are you that person?”

If they can't say “Yes” -- I’d suggest you look for somebody else!

Final Thoughts

The road to recovery can be a winding road.

There's going to be ups and downs, twists and turns. As you temporarily avoid painful movements and start to incorporate them back, you may experience some slight flare-ups. That's normal!

Stick with the plan -- modify as necessary -- and you'll keep the progress going. This isn’t something that you should have to suffer from for the rest of your life.

Typically neck pain only hangs around for a week or so. But I've seen neck pain that's lasted months, and unfortunately years. I’ve even seen people that have been living with neck pain for over 10+ years! And I’ve helped them overcome neck pain and regain control of their life.

There’s no reason you have to live with pain.

I am generally able to get people out of neck pain completely in 4 to 6 visits. For some people, even one visit is enough!

And they’re not just out of pain but they have an education and understanding that empowers them to keep it from happening again. If it does, they know how to get out of it all by themselves.

Many times I’ve seen neck pain turn into a launching pad for improving yourself -- in all sorts of ways.

Overcoming neck pain can move you toward training smarter, more consistently, better productivity, and making positive decisions about the future. Not just in neck pain, or athletic performance -- but in many areas of life!

Use the information we’ve covered to find relief in the short-term. Then build a long-term plan to keep you on track -- and doing what you love.

Thank you for reading! I hope you’re able to take control of your neck pain better moving forward.

And if you need help with this process -- give me a call. I’m ready to get you back in action!

***The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.***

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