Something giving you a literal pain in the neck? You're not alone. Neck and back pain are common complaints, says Dr. David Casper, a Spine Surgery Fellow at the Cleveland Clinic—and they're usually due to simple body mechanics that are a part of everyday life. Perhaps you twisted, bent down, or lifted an item, and ended up injuring or inflaming your paraspinal muscles. Typically, the pain goes away with rest and time, but we asked Dr. Casper to walk us through some ways to prevent future afflictions.
Getty / Michael Robbins
The number one thing people can do to prevent neck and back pain, Dr. Casper says, is to get active. Specifically, they should focus on core-strengthening exercises, which can take some of the pain off of the low back. "Yoga, Pilates, and aqua therapy—all those sorts of things—are good to build up the surrounding musculature that helps support the spine and carry yourself," he explains. "Any form of exercise, whether it be cardio or weight training, as long as you're doing it within your comfort level, is a good thing." Prior to attempting a new form of exercise such as weight lifting, however, you may want to make an appointment with a certified personal trainer to ensure proper form—and to prevent further injury.
Healthy eating is a big part of the equation, too, since those who suffer from back pain often struggle "from a weight standpoint," Dr. Casper says. "It alters your mechanics. If you're carrying around a lot of extra weight, that can cause some issues."
Whether you're working, commuting, watching TV, or scrolling through your favorite social media platform, pay attention to the way you're sitting or standing. "Trying your best to be in an upright position is a key element" of preventing back pain, Dr. Casper says. "It's easy for people, especially if they work at a desk and they're sitting there for five hours at a time, to progressively keep slouching over and be in a position where they're not of good posture." He recommends working at a standing desk, or at least getting up every hour to walk around. If you tend to forget, a fitness watch can prompt you to move during periods of inactivity.
Dr. Casper advises stretching every morning for 10 to 15 minutes. You can look up stretches that specifically target neck and back pain, but, he reiterates, "yoga and Pilates are good for whole body-type stretching."
While Dr. Casper isn't a fan of back braces, which he says can provide short-term relief but can actually weaken core muscles over time, he does endorse posture trainers, app-enabled devices that track your alignment. For some patients, he also recommends orthotics. "Oftentimes, people with flat feet or other issues can help their low back pain [with orthotics]," he explains. As for the rest of the products on the market that claim to assuage neck and back pain? "There's not a lot that really provide long-lasting relief," he says."
The same goes for medications. For a brief period, it's fine to mitigate minor aches and pains with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or topical muscle relaxants, but Dr. Casper cautions that these kinds of medications aren't a great long-term treatment option.
Of course, you should discuss specific symptoms and treatment options with your doctor. Keep an eye out for red flags, says Dr. Casper: "Typically, neck and back pain goes away in a week or two with some NSAIDs and some rest, but if patients start having pain that's radiating down their arms, or they're having pain that's waking them up at night, or issues with their balance or things like that, that's certainly a reason that they should seek out a physician."
Similarly, if the pain persists for longer than a couple of weeks, it's a good idea to see your family practitioner. The next step may be physical therapy or another conservative approach—he says it's very rarely a surgical issue. In terms of injury prevention, Dr. Casper says it may also be a good idea to tell your doctor that you'd like to learn more about body mechanics—particularly if your job requires heavy lifting or other types of physical exertion.