Neck Pain During Quarantine

I’ve had about ten people complain to me of neck pain in the last week or so, including my husband, my 18 year old daughter and myself. It isn’t difficult to understand why. We are all looking down more than up, sleep habits because of schedule changes, alcohol ingestion and stress have changed and the stress itself is commonly implicated in all kinds of back pain. We are literally clenching the muscles in our back, the way we do in our jaw during difficult times.

To make matters worse, we can’t see our doctors for non-emergencies. This adds to the stress, sends a sneaky thought into our brains, “What if this is something serious?” and of course, this only escalates the stress. For me, I missed my ovarian cancer screening test and toward the end of my mother’s battle with this horrible disease, neck pain was the hallmark symptom that the cancer had spread to her spine. I am aware of the psychological impact of this, but it still really, really hurts some days.

What can you do?

  1. Look up. Your head is heavy, even if your thoughts are light. We didn’t evolve to hunch over our computers or our phones for many hours of many days. Some studies are looking at bone spurs on the necks of young people from the over-flexion of our necks.
  2. Focus on ergonomics. You may be sitting more than ever before, working from home in a different position than you are used to. Even if you are exercising for an hour every day, think of all the time you spend upright in your “normal” life — commuting, spending time with friends, running in and out of stores, walking around your office. Make a point to arrange your screens in a way that keep your eyes as level as possible. Get up and move around, often.
  3. Heat and/or Ice. Depending on the cause of the neck pain, ice or heat may be beneficial. If you are having muscle spasms, moist heat can be very helpful. Put a small damp towel in the microwave for 30 seconds. When it is still very hot, but will not burn you, place it on the source of your pain. Put a plastic bag over it to retain the heat and extend the time of treatment. Rinse and repeat several times throughout the day. If your neck is sore from inflammation, try ice. 15 min on, 15 min off. Repeat twice. If it helped, do this morning and night.
  4. Change your pillow. What worked in the past, may not be working for you now. Grab a different pillow, and give it a try.
  5. Stretch. Every morning and every night before bed, spend 10 minutes stretching your neck and upper back. Focus not only on the neck, but the shoulder and the arms.
  6. Anti-inflammatories. If it is OK with your stomach, try ibuprofen every 6 hours for 3 days to try and reduce the inflammation. While doing this, also pay attention to the steps above.
  7. If none of this helps, you can call your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe stronger pain meds (I’m not suggesting narcotics) and a muscle relaxant.

If you are worried, a short meditation before bed can be a great way to reduce tension. Signs that neck pain is more serious are: radiating pain into arms and legs, a severe headache and/or fever, unintended weight loss, problems with balance or coordination, problems with bladder control. If you are experiencing any of these, contact your doctor as soon as possible. For the rest of us, when our brains are trying to cope with so much, it is very common for pain to flare in different parts of our body. Our neck and lower back are particularly susceptible, as we hold our stress here. Take care of yourself best you can, be proactive about the pain, and know this too shall pass.

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Author: Karen Latimer

Dr. Latimer is a Family Physician and Wellness Coach. She helps clients with parenting issues, the challenges of college and young adulthood and issues related to health and habits. Email her at to learn more. She is the author of the Audible Original, Take Back the House -- Raising Happy Parents.


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