How to Overcome Chronic Neck Pain Without Surgery

December 7, 2022

By Justin Field, M.D.
Dr. Field is a board certified, fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Dr. Field has specialized training in minimally invasive spine surgery and motion sparing technologies, such as cervical and lumbar Artificial Disc Replacement, as well as non-fusion stabilization. In addition, he has extensive training in adult deformity correction and treatment.


Chronic neck pain can take a significant toll on your daily routine, activities and life. You likely don’t want to turn to surgery right away. Thankfully, there are many ways to alleviate neck pain naturally.

You can try numerous self-care techniques for chronic neck pain at home. Learn about neck pain types, causes and symptoms, as well as various nonsurgical neck pain treatments that might work for you.

Anatomy of the Neck

Understanding how the neck works can provide insight into treating pain or injury when necessary. The neck contains the spine’s first seven vertebrae, a section called the cervical spine. The uppermost vertebra, or C-1, attaches to the base of the skull to enable head rotation.

The cervical spine’s bones support the neck’s soft tissues, including the muscles, ligaments and tendons that allow for movement and flexibility. Together, these internal neck structures support and balance the head.

Your neck also contributes to your body’s shock-absorbing system, meaning your head is somewhat physically isolated from the body during a collision or impact. This potentially minimizes the severity of the blow and the risk of a concussion.

What Is Chronic Neck Pain?

Neck pain is among the most common musculoskeletal conditions, affecting 80% of people at some point during their life. As the name suggests, neck pain describes any painful sensation or discomfort in the cervical spine. It can range from a mild ache to a sharp, stabbing pain that compromises normal tasks and activities.

Neck pain can be:

  • Acute: Acute pain lasts for a few days to a few weeks.
  • Subacute: Subacute pain lasts four to 12 weeks.
  • Chronic: Pain becomes chronic if it lasts for three months or longer.

Neck pain often goes away within a few days or weeks, but pain that persists for months may indicate an underlying condition requiring professional care. Long-term neck pain can suggest problems with the spine’s nerves, vertebrae or discs.

Types of Neck Pain

Neck pain typically falls into one of four categories. Any of these types can occur independently or with others.

1. Axial

Axial or mechanical neck pain is the most common type. It impacts a single neck region without moving or radiating. It often causes an achy, dull or throbbing sensation, but it can also cause stinging or sharpness. Pain can increase with specific movements or poor posture.

Axial neck pain usually stems from neck strains or sprains. However, it can also result from trauma- or spinal degeneration-related issues, such as:

2. Radicular

Radicular pain starts in the neck and spreads to other areas, like the shoulders, arms and hands. It usually occurs when a cervical spine’s nerve root becomes inflamed.

This type of neck pain can feel searing or almost like an electric shock. Certain postures and movements can escalate the pain. Most people experience it on one side of the body, but it can affect both sides.

Radicular pain often derives from spinal degeneration, such as osteophytes — or bony spurs — irritating the nerve root, or a cervical herniated disc.

3. Referred

Referred neck pain occurs when you experience pain in a location other than its source, and it isn’t caused by nerve root irritation. For instance, when a trigger point is compressed, the pain can refer to other parts of the body.

This type of pain is typically a deep, throbbing, achy or cramping sensation. The pain is often more spread out than radiating pain, but the two types can feel similar. Referred pain is commonly experienced on one side of the body but can impact both.

Pain can refer to the neck in numerous ways, such as from the jaw via temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction or from the heart during a heart attack. A neck-related condition can also refer pain to other bodily areas, such as shoulder pain, upper back pain or a headache.

4. Myelopathic

Myelopathic pain results from compression of the spinal cord and exiting nerves. Aside from neck pain, symptoms can also occur in regions below the neck or compression site, like in the arms, legs or feet. Medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, spinal stenosis, herniated discs and spinal tumors can increase your risk of myelopathic pain.

What Causes Chronic Neck Pain?

Various factors that weaken or damage the cervical spine can drive neck pain, and they can vary from person to person. One individual may experience short-term discomfort from a mild injury, while another might have chronic pain from an underlying condition. Here are a few common causes of neck pain:

  • Muscle tears, strains and fractures
  • Nerve damage or impingement
  • Poor posture or awkward sleeping positions
  • Whiplash
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Pinched nerve
  • Viral or bacterial throat infections
  • Cervical stenosis
  • Herniated discs
  • Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Traumatic injury from a fall or accident
  • Joint wear and tear from aging

While neck pain can occur at any age, it’s most common in adults aged 45 to 54. Additionally, psychological risk factors like depression, anxiety, long-term stress and other mental health-related conditions can contribute to chronic neck pain.

Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

Depending on the person and condition, cervical spine pain may cause dull aching or soreness, sharp pain, tenderness or pulsations. Other symptoms associated with serious, chronic neck pain might include:

  • Radiating numbness or tingling
  • Difficulty with balance, walking and coordination
  • Difficulty holding and lifting objects
  • Muscle cracking, popping or grinding
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Upper or lower back pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes or difficulty swallowing
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches and jaw pain

How to Overcome Chronic Neck Pain Without Surgery

While some severe cases of chronic neck pain might require surgery, many cases can be treated with nonsurgical methods at home. Here are some remedies to consider if you’re seeking chronic neck pain relief without surgery.

1. Rest, But Not Too Much

A couple of days of rest can help alleviate neck pain following an injury. Give your neck some time to recover naturally, breaking from strenuous activities like running, playing sports or carrying heavy loads.

Remember that excessive rest and constant inactivity can do more harm than good. Too much rest can weaken the body and muscles, which may increase your risk of reinjury upon returning to your normal routine. After a day or two of rest, try returning to your activities gradually and carefully.

When resting to reduce neck pain, experts recommend laying on your side or your back. Sleeping on your stomach can put pressure on your spine, as it arches your back and turns your neck to the side. If you prefer to sleep on your back, use a rounded pillow that supports your neck’s natural curve and a flatter pillow to cushion your head.

2. Adjust Your Exercise

An effective exercise routine can help reduce pain and restore muscle and nerve function. Rather than high-impact exercises like aerobics, running and mountain biking that can risk further injury to your neck, opt for low-impact activities that reduce your overhead work. A physical therapist can recommend safe exercises to help manage chronic neck pain and improve your cervical disc health based on your condition.

Chin tucks are a simple yet effective exercise for building your neck muscles:

  1. Sit in a chair with your upper back, shoulders and head firmly supported. You can also lie flat with your back on the floor.
  2. Move your chin back and down slowly to align your ears with your shoulders. You should feel a stretch in the back of your neck.
  3. Hold this position for about 10 seconds, then release. Repeat several times.

Strengthening your core muscles can also prevent your shoulders and neck from becoming overworked. Chair stands are a simple way to do so:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Stand up slowly while tightening your abdominal muscles.
  3. Sit down slowly, then repeat these steps several times.

Gentle cardio and aerobic exercise may also help alleviate chronic neck pain. Aerobic activity can stimulate blood flow to soft tissues and muscles in the upper back and neck. It can also strengthen weak muscles, loosen tight muscles and improve your range of motion. Here are some low-impact cardio and aerobic exercises to try:

  • Walking
  • Swimming and water aerobics
  • Yoga
  • Stationary cycling
  • Rowing

Let pain be your guide when building an exercise routine. Don’t push yourself too hard, and have someone supervise you when necessary.

3. Receive Physical Therapy

Many think of physical therapy as a rehabilitation method following a collision or sports injury. However, it can also be an effective chronic neck pain treatment. Physical therapy can benefit the body by:

  • Using targeted exercise to strengthen weakened neck areas
  • Identifying improper habits or posture that may contribute to pain and stiffness
  • Helping reduce the risk of reinjury

Building your neck’s strength and flexibility may help reduce pain and support the cervical spine, especially when combined with other treatments like aerobic exercise. Speaking with your doctor can help determine if physical therapy may help manage your chronic neck pain.

4. Consider Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine involving the insertion of needles into different acupuncture points. This practice aims to improve circulation, reduce inflammation and release neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine, promoting relaxation and pain relief. Some people use acupuncture for chronic neck pain.

During an acupuncture session, a specialist will determine which points require stimulation depending on your symptoms and health history. Some practitioners combine acupuncture with aromatherapy, massage and relaxation techniques. Acupuncture generally isn’t painful since the needles only penetrate the outer skin layer. You may find it can reduce your neck pain, stiffness and stress levels.

5. Look Into Advanced Ultrasound-Guided Injections

Ultrasound technology captures internal body images using high-frequency sound waves. Besides monitoring pregnancy progression, many medical professionals also use this safe, noninvasive technology for joint injections, including those in the cervical spine area.

Guided ultrasound injections resemble conventional injections, but they offer the benefit of seeing inside the body during the procedure. Rather than relying solely on touch to determine the correct injection placement, the practitioner uses the imaging probe to produce a live video of the joint tissues. The clear, high-resolution images help guide needle insertion and medicine administration.

6. Contemplate Manual Therapy

Manual therapy is a physical treatment that involves kneading and manipulating the joints and muscles to treat musculoskeletal pain. Manual neck manipulation can help relieve symptoms and tension when used properly and carefully.

Talk to your health care provider if you think chiropractic, osteopathic or another manual therapy may be an effective neck pain treatment option or if you’ve had success with manual therapy before.

7. Change Your Diet

Certain diets are highly inflammatory, particularly those high in processed foods, refined sugars and trans fats. Talk to your doctor to see if your diet may be contributing to your neck or back pain and how you can adjust it. Maintaining a healthy weight may also relieve pain by reducing the pressure on your spine.

Your doctor might recommend limiting or cutting out inflammatory foods, such as:

  • Red and processed meats
  • Soda and other sugary beverages
  • Margarine, lard and shortening
  • White bread and pasta
  • Snack foods like cookies, chips and pastries
  • Fried foods
  • High-fructose corn syrup

They’ll likely encourage you to consume a more anti-inflammatory diet with foods such as:

  • Leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach and collards
  • Tomatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts like walnuts and almonds
  • Fruits like blueberries, strawberries, oranges and cherries
  • Fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna

8. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Chronic neck and back pain can be both physically and emotionally taxing. A rehabilitation psychologist may be able to help manage the negative feelings and psychological aspects of chronic pain. This practitioner might suggest yoga, tai chi, meditation and other relaxation techniques to divert your focus from the pain.

9. Take Pharmacologic Treatments

Medications like anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics and muscle relaxants may help manage your chronic neck and back pain. Remember that many have unwanted side effects and aren’t intended for long-term use. You shouldn’t use medication as your first or only treatment option for chronic pain.

Furthermore, many of them can be addictive and don’t address the source of your pain. Take opioid medications only if your doctor has recommended and prescribed them and only if other drugs have been unsuccessful. It might be time to seek a second opinion if you rely on opioids to get through each day.

When to See a Doctor

We recommend seeking medical care if your neck pain:

  • Is accompanied by headaches, numbness, tingling or weakness
  • Worsens despite self-care
  • Continues after several weeks of home care techniques
  • Radiates down your arms or legs

If you’re looking to reduce neck pain with a minimally invasive surgical procedure, our team at Desert Institute for Spine Care in Arizona may be able to assist you. We specialize in cutting-edge, innovative surgical methods combined with personalized patient care.

With vast experience in both traditional and minimally invasive spine procedures, like endoscopic and microscopic surgeries, we can help you determine an effective treatment plan based on your condition, pain levels and symptoms.

Let us help you restore your lifestyle. Contact DISC to schedule a consultation appointment for chronic neck pain treatment today!

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