Besides securing the head to the rest of our body, the neck, or cervical spine, is also responsible for various movements. As such, it holds a complex yet strong network of muscles, bones, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels that, when repeatedly pushed to its limits, causes pain and inflammation.
If you’re often a victim of neck pain and have relied on reusable ice packs for relief, this article is for you. Discover what causes cervical pain and how you can use cold therapy to feel better, every single time.
What causes neck pain?
Neck pain is often a result of muscle strains and tension prompted by poor posture, erratic sleeping position and overexertion. Even the simple things we’re used to doing, such as leaning over the computer or looking down to read a book or our phone messages, all contribute to muscle strain.
There are, however, more serious causes for neck pain, such as degenerative spinal and cervical diseases, including osteoarthritis, cervical spondylosis, herniated cervical disk, spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. These conditions typically lead to a persistent or chronic neck pain.
An equally painful but less common reason for neck discomfort would be compressed nerves. Medically known as cervical radiculopathy, pinched nerves are mostly triggered by abnormal bone growth and herniated disks.
Other lesser common causes of neck pains are diseases, such as meningitis, and traumatic injuries, like whiplash.
What are the signs and symptoms of neck pain?
Neck pain can be acute, as in the case of an injury, or it may be chronic, developing over time as with normal wear and tear due to aging.
The pain may be sharp and concentrated in one spot, or dull and spread across a wider region such as the shoulder and arms. In some instances, it is accompanied by headaches, muscle spasms or a tingling and numbing sensation along the arm or hand, such as those caused by a pinched nerve on the neck.
Your range of movement will be affected, too, making it difficult to move your head side to side or up and down.
How can heat and cold therapy help ease your neck pain?
Cold treatment or ice can help ease pain and inflammation by numbing sore tissues and slowing down the nerves that send pain messages to your brain. By keeping the fluids away from the affected site, it likewise reduces the swelling. Cold therapy is most effective when applied within 48 hours following an injury or the onset of pain.
Heat, on the other hand, relaxes tight muscles and stimulates blood flow to accelerate the healing process.
Is ice or heat better for neck pain?
Both are useful in treating neck pain. However, it is highly recommended to apply cold therapy or ice packs for the first 24 to 48 hours to manage swelling and discomfort.
When an injury happens, the body’s protective mechanism causes soft tissues to become inflamed. If heat is applied, blood and other fluids will rush to the site, worsening the inflammation.
Applying ice is the best mode of treatment at the onset of pain. After two days, heat may be used to loosen tense muscles and reduce neck stiffness. As your muscle tension eases, your range of motion will improve.
What are the tools for cold treatment application?
An important thing to remember about cold therapy application is to attain numbness without burning the skin. When you’re beginning to “feel” again, you can start performing another icing session.
These are the tools commonly used to apply cold therapy:
1. Reusable pack – This neck ice pack offers immediate neck pain relief, making you feel like a rockstar in just one application.
How to apply ice packs:
- Take the ice pack out from the freezer and place a thin cloth on your skin.
- Let the ice pack sit on your neck for no longer than 20 minutes. You may also opt to remove the ice when you feel numb.
- Allow your body to recover in between applications by letting the area warm up for about 45 minutes before reapplying the ice.
- Do this once every hour, or every four to six hours, for two to three days.
Apart from soft tissue injuries, cold treatment may help patients suffering from osteoarthritis, muscle strains and tendinitis.
You shouldn’t be using ice packs while sleeping, but this cooling cervical pillow is an exception. This product provides the best solution for pain relief in the middle of a much needed shuteye.
2. DIY ice pack – A good alternative to reusable ice packs, apart from frozen vegetable packs, is a do-it-yourself ice pack that you can create by mixing water and liquid soap in a resealable plastic bag.
Another easy option is an ice puck, which you can make by freezing water in a plastic cup and peeling the bottom part before performing an ice massage.
How to pull off an ice massage:
- Massage the ice puck or ice cube in a circular motion, focusing on the affected site.
- To avoid an ice burn, limit ice massage therapy to about five minutes per session.
- Repeat the ice massage two to five times a day.
3. Cold water immersion – Athletes often soak in cold water to relieve sore muscles and improve performance, among other health benefits.
How to make ice baths at home:
- Draw a bath in the tub.
- Add ice to water until the temperature is between 50–59 degrees Fahrenheit (10–15 degrees Celsius).
- Stay submerged for only 10 to 15 minutes, not longer, to avoid hypothermia.
While anecdotal evidence shows its efficacy, a 2017 study challenged this, citing that cold water immersion may not be as effective as some claim it to be.
What is the Feng Fu point?
If you’re an avid acupuncture fan, you might have heard about the Feng Fu point. This pressure point, found at the base of the skull just below the bottom ridge of the skull cap, is said to promote overall health with regular stimulation.
Why should I put ice on my Feng Fu point?
Placing an ice pack or ice cube on your Feng Fu spot is said to activate the body’s natural healing process, reducing tension and stress, helping prevent headache and other types of pain, improving your mood, digestion and sleep quality.
To target your Feng Fu pressure point at home, do this:
- Lay on your stomach and place an ice cube on the spot indicated (the ridge where the skull meets the spine).
- Hold it there for about 20 minutes, or until the ice cube melts.
- If you want to move while doing this, tie a cloth to hold the ice cube or pack in place.
Doing this every two to three days prior to having breakfast and before going to bed supposedly promotes your overall well-being.
Precautions for cold therapy use
Using ice or cold therapy is generally safe with proper use, but there are a few things to consider before putting it on.
Ice should not be applied directly on bare skin, and for not more than 20 minutes each session to avoid ice burn or frostbite. Do not fall asleep with the ice pack resting on your skin.
Because cold therapy impacts your nerve receptors and circulation, its application is strongly discouraged for patients with vascular and nerve issues, such as diabetes and Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Alternating cold and heat therapy
In some instances, speeding up the healing process requires contrast therapy, or switching the use of heat and cold packs.
Cold therapy acts as a vasoconstrictor, narrowing the blood vessels to minimize circulation. As the ice pack is removed, the body compensates by expanding the blood vessels in a process called vasodilation. Applying heat speeds up and amplifies this process, allowing for more blood flow and nutrients needed to heal the affected tissues.
When to see a doctor
Book an appointment with your doctor if your neck pain worsens despite using self-care treatments.
If your neck pain is accompanied by high fever, vomiting and loss of limb functions, you may have a serious health condition and should consult a health specialist immediately.
While it may not address the underlying causes of your condition, ice packs remain the most practical tools for managing neck pain and inflammation while waiting for your doctor’s appointment.
Cost-effective, multi-purpose and durable, they relieve pain and swelling not only in your neck but in most parts of your body. Just remember to cover each pack with a thin cloth and to remove it in 20 minutes or when you feel a numbing sensation, to avoid the risk of getting an ice burn.
What do you think about cold therapy and reusable ice packs? Do you find them cool enough for neck pain relief? Let’s start the discussion, contact us here.