Physical Therapy for Neck Pain
Physical therapy is one of the most common treatments for acute and chronic neck pain. Most physical therapy programs for neck pain involve applying treatments to reduce pain and/or stiffness enough to begin an exercise program of strengthening and stretching the neck. The specific methods and exercises used in physical therapy, as well as the duration of the treatment plan, can vary from person to person.
Goals of Physical Therapy for Neck Pain
Physical therapy for neck pain typically includes the following goals:
Reduce pain and stiffness
Improve head and neck range of motion
Develop dynamic strengthening of the neck and its supporting musculature
Develop strategies to prevent pain from recurring
Even if pain cannot be completely eliminated, physical therapy may play an important role in improving neck posture and function for daily movements.
When Physical Therapy May Be Recommended
Physical therapy for the neck might be recommended in a variety of cases, such as:
Unspecified chronic pain. When neck pain lingers or keeps recurring, the exact source or mechanism of pain can be difficult to identify. Even without a diagnosis, increasing the strength of the neck’s muscles may help them to better support the cervical spine and become more resistant to pain.
Recovering from injury. Some injuries, such as whiplash, can damage the soft tissue of the neck and joints, resulting in pain and/or stiffness that can last for weeks or much longer. A physical therapy program can reduce pain and help return the neck to normal functioning.
Recovering from surgery. Some surgeries performed on the neck can result in significant pain and stiffness in the weeks and months that follow. For example, an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF) surgery involves the fusion of 2 or more vertebrae in the neck, which can alter how some neck and upper back muscles move. In such cases, physical therapy may help to work through stiffness, increase neck function, and reduce or prevent painful spasms as the muscles are reconditioned.
Physical Therapy Treatment Methods
There are 2 common forms of physical therapy:
Passive physical therapy, which involves treatments being applied without effort from the patient. Numerous treatment methods are available, such as applying ice packs, heat therapy, massage therapy, ultrasound, electrotherapy, and others. The goal of passive physical therapy is to help reduce pain and swelling.
Active physical therapy, which involves the patient moving his or her own body through exercises and stretches. By improving strength and flexibility in the neck, these muscles may become less painful and better able to maintain good posture, which reduces stress on the cervical spine.
The initial phase of physical therapy for neck pain might involve more passive treatments, but more and more active treatments are likely to be incorporated as time goes on.
Efficacy of Physical Therapy
Many studies have examined whether or not physical therapy can help reduce spine-related pain, such as in the lower back or neck. Current medical literature suggests moderate to strong evidence supporting the benefits of physical therapy’s role in reducing neck pain and improving range of motion. Some studies have found even more benefits from physical therapy when combined with other treatment methods, such as aerobic activity.
One of the challenges with collecting good data about physical therapy’s effectiveness or lack thereof is that it is hard to measure how well a person follows the prescribed program. For example, a person may do exercises with poor form or not as often as directed, which can reduce the chances of the treatment working.