Neck pain may be caused by a number of reasons from a simple muscle strain to a serious spinal injury. Poor posture, uncomfortable neck positioning (and prolonging in such a state) may cause pain radiating from the sternocleidomastoid or even the trapezius- in plain English, your neck muscles. The symptoms could vary from mild ache to serious respiratory disturbances or even neurologic deficit and paralysis should the cause be spinal fracture.
It is emphasized that if upon assessment, the injury is serious- such as involving trauma (i.e. a person who fell a flight of stairs or involved in a vehicular accident), the patient should immediately seek medical attention. Note also that care must be taken in moving the patient so as not to worsen the injury. Any spinal injury as high as T3 (in the thoracic spine) would immediately impair breathing, and lose both sensation and movement below the injury. If the injury is in the cervical spine (the neck area) neurologic deficits, breathing, and even spinal shock could occur- thus it is emphasized that this is an emergency case and home remedies are not applicable.
For minor neck pains, such as those in simple muscle strains, several options may be available. A hot compress or “hot pack” may be applied to the sore muscles. Heat may be applied in the form of either hot water bottles, electric heating pads that produce moisture (dry heat may cause skin damage), or warm towels. The warmth causes vasodilation in the area. Care must be taken in heat application compresses should be wrapped by a cloth and never applied directly to the skin as these may cause burns. Care must also be taken in patients with impaired sensation (such as those with Diabetes Mellitus) because they may be injured without them knowing it.
Alternately, cold packs may be used if there is swelling. Cold packs cause vasoconstriction in the area, thus limiting the inflammation. It may also reduce pain especially after trauma. Cold packs may be in the form of plastic bags containing ice, commercially available gel packs that are reusable, ice packs, or even just a simple bag of frozen vegetables that’s available in every kitchen.
Application of hot or cold packs should be limited to fifteen to twenty minutes; otherwise it might prove to be detrimental if used longer. Check the skin five minutes after application to assess its integrity.
If all else fails, one would have to resort to medical management. Several over the counter medications, which are available in almost everyone’s medicine kit, may provide relief. Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Mefenamic acid, or any NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are available without prescription; however please take time to read the label carefully to check for the appropriate dosage. Self-medication is generally discouraged, but for minor aches and pains, it may be allowed.
If the pain becomes chronic, or if it does not respond to treatment, then it is wise to visit your physician. Be sure to be very thorough in giving your history, including the medications you have taken.