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Physical Therapy to Relieve Neck Pain

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Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to help you relieve your neck pain and restore movement. Whether you have cervical spine surgery or not, physical therapy is key to your healthy recovery.

Physical therapy includes both passive and active treatments. Passive treatments help to relax you and your body. They also prepare your body for therapeutic exercise, which is the active part of physical therapy.

Your physical therapist may give you passive treatments such as:

  • deep tissue massage: This technique targets chronic muscle tension—tension in your neck that perhaps builds up through daily life stress. The therapist uses direct pressure and friction to try to release the tension in your soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, muscles).
  • hot and cold therapies: By using heat, the physical therapist seeks to get more blood to the target area because an increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to that area. Blood is also needed to remove waste byproducts created by muscle spasms, and it also helps healing.

    Cold therapy slows circulation, helping to reduce inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain. Your physical therapist will alternate between hot and cold therapies.

  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS ): You could even use this at home, if your therapist thinks it's necessary. A machine stimulates your muscles through variable (but safe) intensities of electrical current. TENS helps reduce muscle spasms, and it may increase your body's production of endorphins, your natural painkillers. The TENS equipment your physical therapist uses is larger than the "at -ome" use machine. However, whether large or small, a TENS unit can be a helpful therapy.
  • traction: In traction, the therapist will try to stretch and mobilize your spine so that you feel less pain and can move more easily. He or she can do this manually—the hands-on approach—or by using a mechanical traction device.
  • ultrasound: By increasing blood circulation, an ultrasound helps reduce muscle spasms, cramping, swelling, stiffness, and pain. It does this by sending sound waves deep into your muscle tissues, creating a gentle heat that enhances circulation and healing.

In-depth Articles on Other Neck Pain Treatments

In the active part of physical therapy, your therapist will teach you various exercises to work on your flexibility, strength, stability, and range of motion (how easily your joints move). Your physical therapy program is individualized, taking into consideration your health and history. Your exercises may not be suitable for another person with neck pain.

If needed, you will learn how to correct your posture and incorporate ergonomic principles into your daily activities.

It's very easy to stick with bad habits that create neck pain. Slouching at the dinner table. Slumping over your desk. Hunching your shoulders forward. Your physical therapist can help you break those bad habits and create healthy new ones. To make sure that you're not re-injuring yourself, your physical therapist may actually analyze your home and work environments, giving you tips on how you can protect yourself from neck pain.

Updated on: 02/22/13
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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