Neck pain, please help :(
November 12, 2011 8:33 PM   Subscribe

This is getting ridiculous. All I want is relief and a normal neck/upper back again . Brace yourselves for a long story and my thanks in advance for any help :(

Roughly last summer, I started popping my neck as a nervous habit/tic. It started out with a pretty casual rate of popping and then became hundreds of times a day for like a year or so. It's slowed down to maybe 100 times or so a day (as stress and tension mount with school, life, etc), but the short of it is my neck muscles are so tense/overtaxed ALL THE TIME that it's affecting everything I do.

It's not so much pain, but a really deep/constant ache and strained feeling around my lower neck (and naturally affecting my upper back). I don't know what to do at this point, there's so much more I could type out... but suffice to say it's ruining my life and it'll take me 50 years to finish college at this rate (that I'm dropping classes and struggling in others because of the pain/aches).

I got some nerve blocking shots in my neck as a short-term fix while I worked with a cognitive behavioral therapist to change the way I react to stress (which is popping my neck these days). This was over the course of 3-4 weeks about 3 months ago and that's helped most of the pain part of the equation it, but now it's just my muscles having no longevity or durability whatsoever around the neck area. Lately I've been going on 30-40 minute walks in the mornings and even a simple activity like that is causing me to feel really sore/tender/achy for the rest of the day. It's a walk for Christ sakes, I'm not running a god damn marathon.

I've bought a neck-traction (over the door edition) device, acupressure neck pillow and mat, as well as a shiatsu neck massager and none of it helps for very long. The biggest thing would be if I could stop popping my neck as a reaction to stress, then maybe the muscles would heal up and not be overstretched. Yet, when I stop popping it for a few hours, there's no reward/benefit from stopping. My neck continues to hurt and so I just go back to popping it again thinking well **** it, it's not doing me any good to stop popping my neck.

I'm not sure what I'm looking for as a result of starting this thread. Perhaps a really good doctor or some sort of therapy/medical center where they have every conceivable machine and technological innovation to help treat and diagnose what's going on in my neck/upper back as a result of a year + worth of neck popping. I'm 25 and I hate this.

have not tried:

- chiropractor
- "pain management" doctor (see: drug dealer with a prescription pad)
- an ax to the neck
- dropping out of college altogether and becoming a vegetable.


- acupressure neck pillow, body mat
- neckpro traction device (over the door)
- lots of anti-inflammatory drugs
- nerve-blocking shots
- physical therapy (like a year ago... for 2 months... didn't help much at the time)
- cervical spine MRI and x-ray (neck included) - both of which came back "normal".

Anyone that has suffered with neck pain or is currently suffering, if you have any advice or know someone/something that's really helping you right now, please let me know what it is.

I don't know what else to do. This is ruining my life
posted by isoman2kx to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
t'ai chi ... find a good teacher. T'ai chi practise is SO good in restoring body function.
posted by anadem at 8:44 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

You have not listed strength training. I'm guessing if you did it would be on the first list.

It's a distinct possibility that all of your problems are rooted in weaknesses in your upper back musculature and the hypermobility that this causes. Changing this whilst contending with chronic pain will be challenging and gradual, but it can be done, and it's likely the only thing that will actually lead to anything more than a temporary stopgap solution.

You should seek to get a postural assessment and movement screen done by a respected PT or osteopath, and use their expertise to begin a program of progressive strength training.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:53 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Massage and yoga are my go-to answers for muscle pain. The combination works wonders for me.
posted by decathecting at 9:02 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If your neck muscles are the ones constantly spasming/tensing up, the problem may lie with a muscle imbalance somewhere in your mid-back/shoulder blade area, and it's manifesting in your neck.

IANYD, but when I had pretty bad neck pain, constant and intense massage helped loosen things up considerably - it turns out the problem was poor posture, which strained muscles between my shoulderblades. Massage - not the 'relaxing spa' sort of massage but 'ow ow oh god what're you doing' sort of sports massage. After getting all the knots pounded out I'd have to maintain good posture to keep the muscles from seizing up again, at which point I'd have to get another beating (rinse, repeat) but after several months the worst of it receded. If you decide to give this a try, I suggest a sports massage therapist, one who'll take a look at your whole body and try to figure out where the source is, and not just focus on your neck.

Also - you know this - stop popping your neck. Even if it feels like stopping does nothing and it hurts and you just want to pop it ONCE - stop. I don't know the biomechanics of neck-popping but if this pain started once the neck-popping started, chances are it's what aggravated your neck in the first place. And if you were up to popping your neck hundreds of times a day, it's probably going to take a long, long time (months!) for the benefits to start showing. Be patient with it. It's going to suck ridiculously but you can stop.

Good luck!
posted by zennish at 9:06 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Acupuncture will take about 2 to 3 months with weekly appointments, if you are keen. But it will last a lifetime if you commit to it.

Otherwise, yoga, massage, tai chi - all acceptable. But you sound like you require intervention and something to take you over the next hump...

Acupuncture with yoga or tai chi.
posted by jbenben at 9:15 PM on November 12, 2011

Try the exercises in this book: 7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life: How to Rapidly Relieve Back and Neck Pain

I also suffer from neck problems, and they are great for relieving the immediate pain. You need to do this regularly.

How are you sleeping/sitting?
posted by so much modern time at 9:25 PM on November 12, 2011

I ignored everone's advice about yoga for years but it only took about a month of classes to rid me of my chonic neck and upper back pain (from a slight crooked spine and tension and etc.) Enen vicodin did nothing to help. Maybe your school has classes?
posted by Kloryne at 9:26 PM on November 12, 2011

I second massage (with a massage therapist who specializes in rehabilitating sport or motor vehicle injuries, not somebody from Happy Fun Spa) and strength training, preferably under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. The young rope-rider has a good idea in the meantime, too -- having something to help you cope with the pain makes a huge difference.
posted by vorfeed at 9:34 PM on November 12, 2011

Best answer: Decathecting nailed it when she suggested Yoga and Massage. I am a Registered Massage Therapist in Quebec and I'm working towards my Ontario certification. So I guess I can say that I'm an RMT but not YRMT :)

There are a multitude of reasons why you need to stop cracking your neck right now and never, ever do it again. The first and foremost of these being that you can die from doing it. Even though the article says that there's a relatively small chance of it happening during a Chiropractic visit, I'm going to take a leap here and tell you that cracking your neck 100+ times a day is going to seriously up the chance that you're going to tear up your cervical arteries.

From what you've mentioned, it sounds to me like you've done some pretty gnarly things to your lateral and posterior neck muscles, and that your traps and other postural muscles in the area are struggling to take over the job of holding your head up. The good news is that this damage can be reversed. The bad news is that it's going to take some time to do it. The best news is that a Registered Massage Therapist is most likely going to be the best person to help you to get from where you're at to where you want to be.

I know the questions to ask, so I am more than happy and willing to help you find a qualified RMT by screening some of the RMTs in your area for you. I can make some phone calls and MeMail you a referral list by say Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.
posted by empatterson at 9:36 PM on November 12, 2011

My apologies for not nthing. And my thanks to all the rest of you who suggested Massage. I was too busy typing up my reply to click the 'show new comments' link.
posted by empatterson at 9:38 PM on November 12, 2011

I have upper back pain too, but I'm still working on it so I can't give you a "solution." I'll merely suggest that applying heat might provide some temporary pain relief. Just don't fall asleep while laying on an electric heat pad.
posted by postel's law at 9:51 PM on November 12, 2011

I have had a very similar problem for the last week. My neck is very tense and I get this strange sensation in the back of my head. I've been researching why this is happening and I came across "tension headaches". Bad posture, cracking your neck, and stress are the cause of this. Stress is causing the back and such to tighten up and the cracking the neck/bad posture is creating scar tissue back there (from what I have read). I'm tempted to try the program, but part of me thinks it's not legit. Let me know if your problem sounds like this and what you plan to do about it. This problem also has the ability to ruin my life also so I would appreciate any help also.
posted by bringdaruckus at 10:01 PM on November 12, 2011

Yet, when I stop popping it for a few hours, there's no reward/benefit from stopping. My neck continues to hurt and so I just go back to popping it again thinking well **** it, it's not doing me any good to stop popping my neck

I would suggest that you try stopping for more than a few hours. I used to crack my back because my back hurt, and that was the only thing that helped. But it only felt better for a few minutes before I had to crack it again. But I quit cold turkey and my back feels so, so much better.

Yes, the first few days are excruciating. But after day three or so, you should find yourself feeling super good, which should be an awesome motivation to stop cracking your neck.
posted by too bad you're not me at 10:09 PM on November 12, 2011

Best answer: IANYPT, but it is possible your problems are coming from a functional imbalance of some kind, where certain muscles are tight and overactive, and other muscles are weak and underactive. This can change the forces that act on the joints in the neck, and can be quite uncomfortable. It is also possible something postural is going on. Sustained 'studenting' postures (head stuck in a book) can be very hard on the back and neck, and can aggravate an imbalance. Or even cause an imbalance in the first place.

If this is in fact the problem, then cracking your neck might give you temporary relief. But it wont correct the imbalance, and it wont correct your posture. (So you keep on cracking, and things don't get better. Though at the same time cracking doesn't necessarily make things worse.)

A better approach would be to stretch the muscles that are tight, to activate and strengthen the muscles that are weak, and to get started on postural correction exercises that are specific to your needs. This is easier said than done, because it means breaking movement habits that are often very deeply ingrained. However it is totally doable, if you work at it.

You mention you gave physio a try already, and that it wasn't successful. I am wondering what the treatments consisted of? (Not all PTs are experts in this sort of thing.) I would strongly encourage you to give physio another chance, but to make sure you are seeing someone who is well versed in movement analysis and biomechanical disorders of the neck and back.

An axe to the neck might also work, but it as an awful mess to clean up. :)
posted by rabbitfufu at 1:17 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

cracking your neck 100+ times a day is going to seriously up the chance that you're going to tear up your cervical arteries

It's normal for joints to make a popping sound periodically when they move toward the end of their range of motion. It's no different in your neck than in your knuckles.

If the normal range of motion of a joint in your neck is restricted, then it is more likely to 'pop' when you gently stretch it. This is different from a chiropractic adjustment or a physiotherapy manipulation, where a high velocity thrust is imparted directly onto a vertebral segment.

Not to say you should be cracking a joint 100s of times a day, but I wouldn't panic about it either.
posted by rabbitfufu at 1:51 AM on November 13, 2011

A pain management center should do more than just prescribe drugs these days, so they may not be a bad idea to check out.
I second the t'ai chi suggestion, or something similar. You should focus on restoring normal muscle function. Mobility exercises like this are good for that. No matter what exercise you do, always go as far as you can, but not any farther. Exercises should definitely not make you feel worse, no matter what an instructor says.

It is very helpful that you know exactly what you are doing to cause this pain. Since you know stress is such a big factor, maybe actively try to focus on that first, instead of pain remedies that only focus on the symptoms. Maybe some kind of therapy, maybe there are stress reductions programs at your school.
posted by davar at 2:36 AM on November 13, 2011

Would you consider trying PT again? I went through it once without a huge amount of success (lower back, not upper). Went through it again with a different therapist, and am able to bend in ways I haven't in years. I did not just go through the PT - I kept on doing the exercises. Not as often or as intensely, but I try to do a couple of sets of at least a couple of the exercises every day, and that is what made the difference.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:40 AM on November 13, 2011

I have a bad habit of carrying tension in my neck and upper back; my magic bullet has been keeping up with shoulder presses on this machine at my gym. It stretches and strengthens the muscles in the upper back and shoulder blades that are really causing the problem, and if I keep at the gym regularly one session lasts me until the next session back at the gym.

Also, the right pillow helps -- I'm a side sleeper, so I need a really firm pillow. A too-soft pillow gives me cricks in my neck. If you sleep on your side look into that as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 AM on November 13, 2011

Try getting "The trigger point therapy workbook" and working through it very consistently and patiently, paying attention to all the author's advice. Don't give up if the first thing you try doesn't work.
posted by Not Supplied at 7:36 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

While this isn't going to be your magic bullet, and it may sound like an odd thing to mention: If you haven't had your vision checked, do so. This can affect how much tension you carry in your neck.
posted by azpenguin at 7:43 AM on November 13, 2011

Another suggestion, the yoga podcast Yogamazing has a specific episode on neck pain. I just did it, and the stretches are the kind that you can do anywhere.
posted by so much modern time at 9:11 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Alexander Technique, massage, Rolfing, Feldenkreis, treatment by an osteopath, sleep on the floor, sauna alternating with cold soaks. (IANAD)..I would consider having someone dig into the meat between your spine and shoulder blade (yes, to help your neck). In the 90's I listened to a series of cassette tapes for TMJ that was helpful--it involved micro movements that progressed to larger movements only when I could accomplish the micro movements without any stress. It broke up the tension between my jaw and neck. Computer software that disables your computer every 20 minutes to encourage you to stretch. Learn to breathe well.

Take heart--you're nowhere near exhausting the possible treatments.

If there's anyone in your life who can simply rub your back every day, or give you hugs that you're completely relaxed during...I think that would help. You may need to be touched.

And stay hydrated! No caffeine or Ritalin or alcohol. Reduce your device usage as much as possible.

Honestly, I've been having this kind of pain for the past few days. I was in an argument yesterday and did some yelling....TOTALLY eradicated the pain for a few hours. Go figure.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:31 PM on November 13, 2011

I suffer from this, to an extent.

I'm a programmer, which means I spend most of my day at a desk staring at a monitor. This makes for a weird chicken-egg problem... I'm uncomfortable sitting at my desk because my neck is upset, and my neck is upset because I spend so much time sitting at my desk.

It used to be REALLY REALLY BAD, especially in my college years when I was super-stressed and had bad diet and exercise habits. Now it's quite a bit better, but not perfect... although this is my fault. I'll have weeks during which I feel completely "cured" and then the following week I start feeling discomfort again.

I find that things are a lot better when I:

- exercise regularly (including strength training in the core, lower and upper back)
- stretch regularly (yoga is amazing)
- maintain good posture while sitting
- set up my desk environment to have better ergonomics
- stay hydrated
- don't get super drunk and pass out in a heap on the floor

If I find my neck acting up, it means I am probably getting lazy and taking shortcuts in one of these areas.

Also, if I go on vacation and stay off the computer, I start to feel fine. In my case my problems are those which I inflict upon myself, not those which are attached to me permanently.

Today my neck is a bit unhappy, which means I should really lay off the drinks tonight and hit the gym before work tomorrow... which sucks, but I'm sure it'll help in my case.
posted by adamk at 7:12 PM on November 13, 2011

Response by poster: My apologies to everyone that replied so far in being late to come back to my question. Will be typing up something shortly.
posted by isoman2kx at 8:09 PM on November 21, 2011

Response by poster: When you've been suffering like I have, it's tremendously encouraging to get the amount of helpful information everyone's given so far.

For those suggesting Yoga, I used to take classes fairly often until my teacher moved away to another city and she was my favorite, so I quit going about a year or so ago. I've certainly heard it can be beneficial for neck pain and the classes aren't too expensive. I could give it another shot.


The massage therapy is a good idea as well. Even if it is of the "ow ow ow, Good Lord, what are you doing?!" variety, I think that could be well worth looking into. I'm definitely looking to combine elements of mental therapy as well as some some of physical help/therapy. Massage therapy would be a strong candidate at this point.

@ so much modern time

My sleeping is less than ideal, particularly with regards to me sleeping in ways that benefit my neck/spine. I'm a stomach sleeper and essentially sleep in a position where if you took a picture of me running upright, then put me on my side in my bed... that's how I sleep, lol. Kind of like a running position for my legs, only on my side combined with sleeping on my stomach. I've got a tempurpedic mattress, although I'm not sure it really makes much of a difference. Tempurpedic pillows as well, FWIW.


If the offer still stands, I would really love if you could either do a Q&A session with me and/or place calls on my behalf. I don't know what to say except... that's the nicest thing someone's ever done for me with this whole ordeal. I'll send you a message shortly. Thanks!


I did give physical therapy a try for a few months while I was in another city for school. The treatments consisted of doing a TENS/EMS unit for like 5-10 mins, then followed by 5-8 mins of an ultrasound (as a male, naturally to see if I was pregnant... I kid I kid :p) to stimulate the muscles/blood flow to the back of the neck. This was followed by a bunch of different exercises that I generally hated. A bunch of pulling and stretching with T-Bands (I think you call them this), pulley exercises, neck decompression (where they put your head in this sling like thing, with a weight attached on the other end) where I would move my neck side to side. Then sometimes a message at the end. I'm kind of running through the CliffNotes version of it. I really liked the TENS unit and ultrasound part, but not much else from it.
posted by isoman2kx at 8:39 PM on November 21, 2011

Response by poster: @rope rider

actually.. I have but I don't really know how use the dang thing. I googled for hours and found a few physical therapy .pdf setting sheets and such, but I feel like a fish out of water trying to get someone to place the pads around my neck and then figuring out all the settings.
posted by isoman2kx at 6:12 AM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: @ rope rider (part 2, forgot some above)

I have seen a psychiatrist and do see one (for depression/anxiety, mostly off and on depression). She's more of a medicine dispenser though. I "could" book a longer session than 10-15 mins, but I never really feel like it. I'm comfortable with her adjusting the meds every once in a while and that's it. She's good, but I don't know. I wouldn't want her as my main talk therapist. I see the CBT actually for help on not popping my neck as much and re-training my brain (so far, it's been eh... but she's a nice talk therapist though) .
posted by isoman2kx at 6:15 AM on November 22, 2011

posted by isoman2kx at 2:06 PM on November 25, 2011

Response by poster: yeah, it's O-K.
posted by isoman2kx at 4:33 PM on November 25, 2011

Have you made any progress on your neck issue? I'm curious because I have similar problems.
posted by bringdaruckus at 12:53 AM on December 16, 2011

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