Sometimes all it takes is something small: exposure to a cold draught, sleeping on the wrong pillow or sitting tensely at a computer for a long time.
You wake up the next morning with a neck so stiff that you can hardly turn your head. It’s a problem almost everyone has had.
“Extended sitting, poor posture at an office, unaccustomed or uneven strain on the body, and also, stress can cause neck tension,” says physiotherapist Ute Merz.
Poor posture puts undue strain on muscles. Taking a few simple precautionary measures, however, generally proves effective.
“If you sit in an office all day, you should make sure that your workplace is ergonomically friendly – for example, that the computer-monitor viewing angle, chair height and lighting are right,” Merz says.
It’s also important to change your seating position as often as possible. She advises standing up more frequently, making telephone calls while standing every once in a while, and consciously sitting down with your neck and back straight.
Although neck pain normally goes away by itself after a few days, the first signs of tension shouldn’t be ignored, she says.
If exercises to counteract it aren’t begun immediately, she warns, there’s a risk of recurrent headaches.
“Tension in certain neck muscles is closely linked to migraine attacks,” notes Dr Florian Heinen, a neuropaediatrician.
People should see a doctor if they’re unable to get rid of their neck pain themselves.
The same goes if the pain radiates into their arms or their hands suddenly go numb.
The problem could be a pinched nerve or spinal damage.
“Sometimes, muscle tension has the protective function of preventing certain motions when there’s a spinal disorder,” says Dr Bernd Kladny, an orthopaedic and casualty surgeon.
A definite cause such as a herniated disk that’s putting pressure on nerves must be treated immediately, but such cases are fairly rare. An examining doctor frequently finds no physical problem.
“Sometimes, the culprit is what’s colloquially called locked-up joints,” Dr Kladny says.
In this case, flexibility must be restored to the cervical vertebrae in the neck by means of a cervical manipulation, also known as a chiropractic adjustment, or stretching therapies.
Treatment is more complicated if neck tension has become chronic, that is, has persisted for three months or more. “When pain is chronic, it becomes an illness itself and a cause is frequently no longer found,” Dr Kladny says.
Psychological factors typically play a key role. Stress leads to muscle tension, and persistent muscle tension can lead to anxiety and depression, causing more stress.
To break this vicious cycle, individual treatment plans must be made that also take the patient’s mental health and social environment into account. – dpa