It is very important that those of us with neck pain learn what we can do to help ourselves as the benefits from treatment are always much more satisfying for both the healthcare provider and patient. Self-care promotes independence and a feeling of accomplishment. You are the most important part of this “team” effort to get you better! Let’s take a look at what self-help techniques you can apply when neck pain strikes:
- Acute stage: This is the period of time when neck pain first starts and it’s usually very sore and painful. This stage occurs immediately after an injury and continues for 24 to 48 hours but can be perpetuated for a week or longer if you are careless about your activities and keep irritating it. Injuries to the neck are similar to a cut on the skin. If you pick your cut, it will bleed again. Sometimes, you have to wait a week or two before you can, “…pick off the scab.” This analogy also applies to neck pain after an injury. At this stage, you need to apply the principle of “PRICE” (Protect, Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate). OK, I guess we’re not going to “compress” or “elevate” our neck but certainly the others apply nicely. To protect the neck, avoid quick/unguarded movements as these can “…pick at the cut” and re-injure the tissue. Rest means you may have to hold back on some activities that may place strain on the neck and might also, “….pick at the cut.” Ice is a WONDERFUL pain killer and anti-inflammatory and should be rotated on/off/on/off/on at 15 minute rotations of ice/no ice/ice/no ice/ice. This creates a “pump-like” action that pushes away the swelling and therefore, reduces pain. After 24-48 hours, you can alternate ice/heat/ice/heat/ice at 10/5/10/5/10 minute intervals as heat relaxes tight muscles and as a result, can help reduce pain. These self-help techniques can continue for a few days to a whole month, depending on the degree of injury and, how “nice you are” to yourself (so you don’t over do it!). Cervical traction (home over-the-door traction) can really help a lot too!
- Sub-acute stage: This stage of healing starts anytime after 48-72 hours and can last 4-6 weeks or more, depending on again, the degree of injury and is “niceness” dependent! During this stage, the callus (scab) is hardening and its becoming stronger/less likely to be re-injured. During this stage, range of motion, fiber stretching, and isometric exercises can slowly be integrated into your program. Progressively harder exercises and re-introduction back into “normal” activities should be emphasized during this time.
- Chronic stage: This stage can last from 8 weeks to one or more years. When neck pain persists, determine which desired activities are well tolerated, including exercises. When “flare-ups” occur, a brief time period with PRI(CE) is nice! Exercises here can be quite physical and progressive, based on your tolerance and exercise experience.