Here's What to Do If You Battle Neck Pain, Including Signs It's Time to See a Doctor

If hours spent hunched over your phone or computer are starting to cause strain on your neck, you're not alone. Approximately one in three people are affected by neck pain at least once a year, with women more prone to it than men. Research published in the journal Medicine found that the prevalence of neck and back pain in the US has grown twice as fast as the incidence rate, meaning that once you recover from this type of muscle soreness, there's a good chance it will happen again. Here, experts share tips for soothing neck pain, as well as the red flags that could signal that it's something more serious.

What Causes Neck Pain?

There are a number of lifestyle factors that can contribute to a sore neck, Karena Hobus, PT, DPT, OCS, of Providence Saint John's Health Center's Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, CA, told POPSUGAR. This can be anything from sitting at a computer or staring at a phone or tablet for a prolonged period of time, to poor posture from a muscular imbalance (such as weak abdominal muscles), to carrying a heavy bag or purse on one side of your body. Even your pillow can contribute to neck pain, Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, CA, told POPSUGAR. If you have pain in other areas of your body — like your shoulders — you may also be straining your neck to help reduce that pain, which could then result in a sore neck, Hobus explained. Basically, anything that holds your neck at an unnatural angle for an extended period of time will cause strain and muscle soreness.

How to Treat Sore Muscles in Your Neck

"The most important thing to do [for a sore neck] is to keep moving," Hobus said. "For example, limit screen time or set a timer or alarm to remind yourself to get up every 30 minutes if you're working at a computer." Also make sure your workspace is ergonomic. "Your screen should by at eye level, your thighs should be parallel to the floor when seated, and the keyboard and mouse should be close by, at a height so that the arms can be relaxed by your side rather than outstretched," she said.

If you think the culprit may be your pillow, Dr. Anand suggests looking into cervical contour pillows, which elevate your neck at different angles depending on if you're a back or side sleeper. "If you have a firmer mattress, you'll need a thicker pillow because there is less cushion for your shoulders to sink into, creating more space between your mattress and head," Dr. Anand said. "If you have a memory foam mattress, a thinner pillow will help compensate for your shoulders sinking into the bed."

In addition to these changes, Hobus recommends trying neck stretches, icing your neck for 20 minutes throughout the day, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin to help reduce symptoms.

Can Neck Pain Be Serious?

If your neck pain is a result of a trauma, such as an accident, fall, or sports injury, it's important to get checked out by your doctor to make sure there's no additional damage. Otherwise, symptoms of ordinary neck pain should last up to a week.

If it's been more than a week with no improvement, or your symptoms are worsening, it may be something more serious. That's especially true if your neck pain comes with fever, numbness or tingling, weakness in your arms or legs, nausea, headaches, changes in vision, dizziness, or fainting. These can be signs of anything from a degenerative disc disease to a herniated disc or stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal canal that then puts pressure on the nerves. Neck pain accompanied with night sweats or unexplained changes in weight could also signal an infection, Hobus explained, so it's important to get checked out as soon as possible if you're experiencing these symptoms.