What to Do for Mild Neck (or Back) Pain

Do-it-Yourself Strategies to Help Ease Your Aches

If you've woken up with neck pain that hurts, but you know it's not bad enough to go see a doctor, here are a few things you might try. The tips in this article may make a good adjunct to medical care, as well. (Ask your doctor or therapist about this before trying.)

Before we get to that, though, check out this short list of scenarios for which the suggestions in this article may be appropriate:

Important Note: If your pain or other symptoms linger for a week or longer, it's likely time to see the doc.  Not only that, some signs and symptoms actually  warrant medical attention; it's good to be familiar with those so you can take action in a timely way.

If you are wondering which home remedy is the best, research shows that  for the most part, they are all about equal in terms of effectiveness.

Stop Irritating The Thing That Causes Your Neck Pain

Neck Pain during sleep
Tom Le Goff Collection/Photodisc/Getty Images

When you have mild neck or back pain on a busy or demanding day, it's easy to forget the obvious - stop doing what makes it worse.

But Dr. Santhosh Thomas, D.O., physical medicine specialist and director of the Westlake Spine Center at the Cleveland Clinic, says the first thing to do for a mild back or neck problem is figure out which activities led to the problem and - stop doing them.

Daniel L. Riddle, PT, PhD and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says a "crick in the neck" can be due to mechanical factors such as sleeping positions that don't work for you.

So, if you like to pillow up, or if there is no give in your pillow, realize that you'll likely be setting yourself up for pain in the morning. To stop irritating your neck in this particular case, avoid having your neck and head propped forward.

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Try Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

Pills of different shapes, colors and sizes fill the image.
Pain killer types.. ShutterWorx/E+/Getty Images

The medicine chest is their first stop for many of us who get mild neck or back pain. Most of the time, an over-the-counter pain medication will do the job. The dosage of an OTC drug is less than what you would get with a prescription drug, and doctors generally suggest starting there.

OTC pain medications come in two main types -- acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and NSAIDs such as Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).

NSAIDs also help control the inflammatory process that is likely contributing to the pain. Both types of OTCs may have side effects, so read the label before taking any drug for your back or neck pain.

Related:  3 Serious Health Risks Associated with Taking Ibuprofen (Advil.)

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Apply Ice to Your Neck or Back

An athlete ices his back injury.
An athlete ices his back injury.. Nadia Richie Studio/Imagezoo/Getty Images

Applying ice to the affected area for up to 48 to 72 hours after pain or injury starts is another way to control inflammation. The inflammation causes pain and, left unchecked, can contribute to a chronic problem in your neck or shoulders.

There are a number of ways to give yourself ice, as suggested by doctors and physical therapists.

For example, consider this method from the American Physical Therapy Association:

  1. Fill a plastic bag with crushed ice.
  2. Place a towel around the area of your neck that has the pain.
  3. Put the homemade ice bag on the towel. Ice for 15 to 20 minutes.
  4. Take a 40 minute break.
  5. Repeat.

Never apply ice directly to your skin.

Related: Which is Better for an Acute Neck or Back Injury:  Ice or Heat?

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Apply Heat

Moist heat therapy
Moist heat therapy. imagepointfr

Applying heat to an acute injury is usually not the way to go, and most doctors will advise against it. This is because heat tends to increase inflammation. There is some disagreements among experts about this, but in general, this is the advice that is given.

After the first 2 or 3 days, applying heat is fair game, and it may help relax those stubborn muscle spasms.

Heat should be applied pretty much the same way ice is -- for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, with a 40-minute break between treatments. Heat wraps that are on the market may provide relief for painfully tense muscles.

You can also alternate between heat and ice (after the initial 2 to 3 days) to get the benefits of each.

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Get a Massage

A smiling woman enjoys a massage.
Massage therapy may help you prevent or manage spinal stenosis.. Zero Creative/Culture/Getty Images

Dr. Thomas also recommends massage for muscle spasms that are attributed to a "crick in the neck."

For neck and low back pain, the massage should be very gentle during the first few days to avoid making things worse. You may even choose to wait until the acute phase of the injury has completely past (at least 72 hours.)

Massage moves fluid around, which may help to prevent scar tissue. After the first few days, massage can help work out tension and knots in your muscles. If you can't afford a massage here are a few moves you can try on yourself: 

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Keep Active...

A senior woman exercises her back using a resistance band.
A senior woman exercises her back using a resistance band.. MartinaOsmey

Years ago, doctors advised people with back pain or injury to respond with immobility (i.e., bed rest.)

More recently, medical research has shown that patients with acute low back pain who stop activity may actually have more pain than those who don't.

Many doctors now recommend staying active within your pain limits as the most effective way to deal with acute low back pain and accompanying loss of physical functioning.  That said, a 2010 review done by the Cochrane Back Group found moderate evidence for this advice when given to people with acute low back pain (when compared to the bed rest advice.)

In the case of sciatica, the researchers found little to no difference between taking a bed rest approach and a staying active (within limits) approach.

If you're up for a bit of gentle movement/positioning, you might try lying on your back with your knees bent and legs resting on a chair or bed to temporarily relieve pain.

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...But Take a Gentle Approach

Woman does the double legged stretch.
Woman does the double legged stretch.. bdibdus

Right after the pain starts, you'll probably feel like protecting the area for a while.

But depending upon the severity of your pain, you may benefit from some very gentle movements. Like massage, gentle movement may help to prevent chronic scar tissue from taking hold.

At this stage, it's important to respect the limits of your pain; stop if notice new inflammation or more pain. (Ideally, you will work with a skilled therapist who can mobilize the injured area safely and appropriately.)

After the acute phase is over, you will likely feel better, but keeping the movement gentle is still very important. The new tissues laid down in the acute phase of injury healing are fragile, and they can be easily damaged by resuming activity at previous, more aggressive levels.

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Know When It's Time to See A Doctor

Doctor scrutinizes x-ray for lesions.
Lesions often show up of x-rays and other films.. Syda_Productions

Technically speaking, there are no established guidelines for when to see a doctor about mild back or neck pain.

But according to Thomas (and as I mentioned in the beginning,) if the pain persists for a week or longer - and especially if it interrupts your daily functioning, it is time to get it checked.

Sometimes pain you think may be due to a simple "crick in the neck" or to low back strain can actually be pointing to something more serious, such as an infection or tumor.

A medical doctor has the diagnostic skills to determine if your pain indicates a serious problem not directly related to the pain. Thomas also says that sometimes conditions such as disc herniation or spinal stenosis can mimic the symptoms of a "crick in the neck" -- another reason to get it checked.


Hurwitz. E.L., Treatment of neck pain: noninvasive interventions: results of the Bone and Joint Decade 2000-2010 Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2009 Feb.

van der Velde G, Hogg-Johnson S, Bayoumi AM, Cassidy JD, Côté P, Boyle E, Llewellyn-Thomas H, Chan S, Subrata P, Hoving JL, Hurwitz E, Bombardier C, Krahn M. Identifying the best treatment among common nonsurgical neck pain treatments: a decision analysis. Spine. 2008 Feb 15.

Telephone Interview: Dr. Santhosh Thomas, Medical Director Westlake Spine Center, Cleveland Clinic. 3/08.

Telephone Interview: Daniel Riddle, PT, PhD Professor Virginia Commonwealth University and Deputy Director Journal of Physical Therapy. 3/08

Hagen KB, Hilde G, Jamtvedt G, Winnem M. Bed rest for acute low-back pain and sciatica. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001254. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001254.pub2.

Dahm, K.T., et. al. Advice to rest in bed versus advice to stay active for acute low-back pain and sciatica. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Jun 2010.

Kisner, C., Colby, L.A. Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques. 4th ed. F.A. Davis Company. Philadelphia. 2002.

What you need to know about neck pain. American Physical Therapy Association website.
Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI). Adult low back pain. Bloomington (MN): Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI); 2006 Sep. 65 p. [124 references]

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