Chronic Neck and Upper Back Pain Relief

By Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Upper back pain and neck pain are a common part of the natural aging process, since joints and bones of the neck change as you grow older, much like your creaky knees and an achy hip.

A stiff neck or long-term chronic pain in the area typically means you’ve inflamed one or more of the 14 joints in your cervical spine, which surround one (or more) of seven vertebrae in your neck.

Many biomechanical factors can affect your neck as part of the normal aging process. For example, the spinal canal may narrow with age and overuse, pressing on the cervical spinal cord and nerves of the neck, causing pain and symptoms in the arms and hands.

Injuries from car accidents and falls, and poor posture or sleeping patterns, can also contribute to osteoarthritis and neck pain. Your resulting pain may range from mild discomfort to severe throbbing that can last for days or weeks.

Adjust Your Posture

Quite literally, proper posture starts with the brain and mindfulness, and anatomically, at the base of your skull. Most people don’t realize that spine health and superior posture start at the jawline and nape of the neck, thread through the cervical spine (plus neck vertebrae), and end up weaving south toward the lumbar spine and through the end of the spinal column or tailbone, commonly called your coccyx.

Maintaining proper posture throughout your day can help you tire less easily and sidestep neck injury. Many simple exercises designed to improve posture are also a great way to help increase your back and core strength. It all starts with awareness of your body in space – how you sit during a long commute, how you stand in line at the bank, even your walking gait.

Poor posture and ensuing neck or upper back pain, in fact, may reflect more on your overall health than you might think. Recent research finds a connection between poor or unhealthy posture and a variety of serious health conditions, including depression, breathing problems, hormone imbalances and sleep disorders.

Much research shows that a painful range of motion in your neck or chronic pain in the upper back and neck may be soothed by one of more of these fixes:

  • A hot pack on the area several times per day to soothe chronic aches;
  • Aspirin, Advil, Aleve (anti-inflammatory pain medications);
  • Turmeric, ginger, and other spices or supplements known to battle inflammation;
  • Occupational therapy or a series of gentle stretches designed to increase your range of motion;
  • Daily supplements of B6 and B12 vitamins that can increase the health of the nerves along the spine; and
  • A regimen of gentle stretches that target the area and stabilize the spine or – even better – performing stretches in a long, hot shower to loosen your neck muscles.

Could this Be Neck Arthritis?

Oh, yes, that chronic neck pain could be neck arthritis, and it’s extremely common with age. Women are almost twice as likely as men to develop degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) in the neck. However, risk factors are the same for both sexes and include age, past trauma, genetics, sedentary lifestyle, and even excessive body weight – the lower spine endures the brunt of excess weight, but modified gait and posture in obesity can affect the neck spine, too.

Symptoms of neck arthritis may include chronic neck pain, muscle weakness, numbness, stiffness, especially in the morning or after a long rest, headaches and even balance problems. Your first big tip-off will be painful neck and upper back muscles lasting for weeks or months at a time.

Other signs of osteoarthritis in your neck may include:

  • Chronic stiffness that worsens with exercise or activity;
  • Sounds or feelings of popping in the neck when you move;
  • Involuntary muscle spasms that cause pain;
  • Sharp headaches that initiate from the neck;
  • Numbness and weakness in the arms and hands;
  • Irritability and difficulty working; and
  • Fatigue and disturbed sleep.

Next Steps

The gradual breakdown of joint surfaces is usually a result of the normal wear-and-tear that comes with age, although it certainly helps to be more mindful of how you sit, stand, sleep and text. While that sounds simple enough, good posture does not come easily to most. To otherwise ease your upper back and neck aches, also try:

  • The Alexander Technique, a gentle, movement-based stretching regimen led by a teacher or therapist that’s widely known to soothe side effects of neck pain and back problems. It focuses on the gradual “un-learning” of a lifetime of poor posture and leads to pain relief, improved coordination, better balance and greater body awareness.
  • Staying at a leaner body weight and trying to remain as active as possible despite ongoing neck pain. Once you receive a diagnosis, your doctor may be able to prescribe medication, occupational or physical therapy or even an assistive device, like a neck brace, to ease long-term suffering.

For Caregivers

  • Later-stage symptoms of degenerative neck pain, usually from osteoarthritis, can prove quite painful. Individual solutions may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to minimize inflammation, so caregivers should keep plenty stocked in the medicine cabinet.

As the wear-and-tear in the patient’s neck progresses, many folks opt for steroidal injections in the localized area, and even surgery for more severe cases, to clean up degeneration in and around the joints of the neck. 

Related Articles

5 Stiff Neck Exercises to Relieve Pain

What the Heck is a Crick in the Neck?

10 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain

Types of Chronic Pain

10 Common Causes of Backaches and Pain

More in category

Related Content