4 Ways to Deal With Constant Neck or Back Pain

Plain and simple, chronic pain hurts. When your pain is acute, i.e., very recently caused by something you can identify (for example, burning your hand on a hot oven or twisting your ankle because you misstepped), you pretty much know what you need to do to deal with it. 

In the case of the ankle twist, you can sit down or put more weight on the non-injured leg. And when you burn your hand, you will likely quickly retract it and maybe run some cold water over the painful spot.

But if you deal with constant pain, the process is different. Because pain is orchestrated by your nervous system, it works like a relay messenger team. Acute pain signals belong on one team, while chronic signals belong on another. And each type of signal, both rushing to the brain for interpretation and response, travel on their own unique pathway.


Why Chronic Pain Has to Be Dealt With Differently

woman experiencing neck pain

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Acute pain is mostly a different animal than chronic. Here are some of the main reasons why:

  • Acute pain signals move fast—this is for your protection so that you can pull your hand away from the oven before your skin temperature reaches 113 degrees Fahrenheit (at which point tissue damage sets in) or so that you can stop putting weight on that twisted ankle, and instead apply RICE.
  • Chronic pain signals, on the other hand, travel to the brain more slowly—on thicker fibers than acute pain signals. 
  • Chronic pain signals are usually initiated by chemical stimuli rather than mechanical stimuli that usually initiates acute pain.

What Science Can Tell Us About Pain Signal Processing and Depression

While both acute and chronic pain signals are transmitted to the hypothalamus and to the cerebral cortex of the brain, experts haven't figured out why each type is perceived differently.

What we do know is that nerve connections between "pain centers" in the thalamus and the limbic system (an area that regulates things like fear, frustration, likes, and dislikes) may be what links chronic or repetitive pain to any depression or other psychiatric problems you may experience. Regardless, once the signals reach the brain—that’s when you feel the pain.


Relieve Your Chronic Pain With Everyday Activities

A girl being wheeled around in a wheelbarrow.

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The good news is that when you have chronic pain, there are things you yourself can do that are easy to organize into your busy day and week, to stop making it worse – and instead get on with your life.

If you don’t know by now, I am a holistic type, so these potential solutions are not about drugs or surgery. The strategies fall into two categories: Distract yourself from your pain, and what I call “Be.Here.Now.” Continue reading for a bit of coaching on each.


Distract Yourself from Feeling Pain With Music

woman playing piano in a baroque setting

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Whitten, et al. in their 2005 study published in the fall issue of the Permanente Journal say that areas of the brain responsible for pain perception "light up" on fMRI when the person is feeling a lot of pain.

The authors comment that distracting yourself from pain is a time-honored technique that may help you decrease how much pain your brain processes, and therefore, how much pain you have to deal with. And what better way than with music?

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Pain concluded that music modulates pain responses in the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord and that in listening to music you may be engaging with a part of your nervous system that provides analgesia (pain relief). So have at it! What's your favorite genre? Blues? Jazz? Classical? Rock? Easy listening? Country? Hip Hop? The list goes on.


Have a Massage

Thumbs giving a massage on someone's back.

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Did you know that the strokes, pressures, and glides of a good massage can actually be substituted for the icky feeling of pain? This is another form of distraction that may help lessen the intensity of chronic pain signals. Not only that, but massage may stimulate some "good" chemicals that decrease pain signals.


Exercise Your Way to Pain Relief

A group of older people exercising in a pool with pool noodles

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Exercising regularly – at a level, you can handle – is another way to distract yourself from your pain. And exercise has an added benefit in that it conditions your muscles and encourages joints to move through their full range of motion. This in itself may be enough to make a dent in your pain levels.

Now, granted, you may need to keep the exercise you do to something gentle like restorative yoga, an easy water exercise class, or even a movement therapy experience like Feldenkrais.  If that's all you can handle, so be it. The idea is to get your body moving without straining your joints, and chances are you'll be glad you did!


Mindfully Meditate

Mindful meditation illustration of a girl's face with eyes closed with flowers and birds

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A 180-degree strategy from distraction is to go right into the pain (i.e., don't avoid perceiving it). Perhaps one of the best ways to attain this is with mindfulness-based stress reduction. 

Started by Jon Kabat Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School over three decades ago, mindfulness-based stress reduction is an eight-week meditation program.

The program teaches you to use meditation to cultivate presence – in the face of whatever is your experience (i.e., pain or one or more of life's other challenges). But you don't have to take a course to benefit. Try a body scan meditation, which is one of the mindfulness techniques taught in the course.

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  • Dobek, C.E., et. al. J Pain. 2014 Oct;15(10):1057-68. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2014.07.006. Epub 2014 Jul 28.

  • The Mechanics of Chronic Pain. Arthritis & Chronic Pain Research Institute website.

  • Whitten, Christine, MD, Donovan, Marilee, RN, PhD, Cristobal, Kristene, MS. Treating Chronic Pain: New Knowledge, More Choices. Clinical Contributions. The Permanente Journal. Fall 2005. Vol. 9. No. 4.