Seeing your child in pain is one of the most difficult things in the world but what are your options for neck pain relief in children? When neck pain, headaches, shoulder pain, and other health issues arise in kids it can be difficult to work out the cause, especially if a younger child is unable to really tell you where it hurts and what kind of pain they have. Often, the same treatments helpful for neck pain relief in adults are good for kids too but sometimes treatments differ so make sure you know what to do if your kid has neck pain.
Causes of Neck Pain in Kids
The cervical spine is a complicated part of the anatomy, with all sorts of structures, nerves, glands, lymph nodes, and blood vessels vying for space. As we grow there are some things that can go wrong, particularly if external stressors, or a congenital spine condition are involved. In most cases, however, neck pain in children is a symptom of muscle strain from a heavy school bag or overactive phys. ed. session. Other causes of neck pain in children include viral or bacterial infections that lead to inflammation and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. Most neck pain will get better over a week or two but it is important to monitor your child’s symptoms in case the cause is more serious.
Diagnosing Your Child’s Neck Pain
Children, especially very young kids, may not tell you about their symptoms or have the right words to describe how they are feeling. This means that you need to be on the alert for signs of neck pain such as flinching when touched, holding the head at a funny angle or moving it gingerly rather than being free with movement. There may be visible signs of lymph node swelling and the child may have a fever or other symptoms of an infection. Sudden reluctance to engage in physical activity can sometimes indicate neck pain in children, as can a desire to sleep more, or less if neck pain at night is disruptive to sleep.
Serious Neck Pain Causes in Children
It is important with any case of neck pain in children to test for meningitis, a bacterial infection that can progress rapidly and result in the loss of limbs, neurological deficits, brain damage, and death if not treated early and effectively. Neck pain and stiffness in a child that means they cannot touch their chin to their chest is cause for concern, especially if they have a fever and/or rash and malaise. Consult a physician as quickly as possible to rule out meningitis.
Accidents, Poor Posture, and Neck Pain in Children
Having determined that the neck pain is not life-threatening it may help to look at your child’s activities for any potential neck pain triggers. These could be something as simple as sitting awkwardly in front of the television, hunching over while playing video games, sleeping next to a draughty window, or even playing a new sport or increasing current activity to an intolerable level. Sudden causes of neck pain in children, such as an accident on a trampoline, a fall from a horse or gym equipment, a car crash, or blunt force trauma necessitate a trip to the emergency room for assessment, especially as signs of whiplash often do not arise for a day or so after injury.
Treating Neck Pain in Children
In most cases neck pain relief in children can be achieved through cautious use of NSAIDs such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, taking care to follow the guidelines to reduce the risk of accidental overdose. Continuing this treatment until the child goes for a day without neck pain will help in the majority of cases and is the most frequently recommended remedy for neck pain in children. NSAIDs help to break the cycle of muscle pain and muscle spasm and are important in getting children back to their normal routine pain-free.
Heat and Stretches for Neck Pain
Other things that can help neck pain in children caused by a muscle strain include the application of a covered hot water bottle or heat pad to the neck for twenty minutes or so, followed by gentle stretching (as advised by a qualified physical therapist) to free up the muscle. This can be repeated several times a day to keep the muscle relaxed and free of spasm. Limiting movement of the neck will often make the situation worse and prolong neck pain, as much as the child may simply wish to stay still and avoid immediate pain. Applying heat, alongside NSAIDs will help make neck stretches easier to perform and reduce the longevity of the pain.
Unusual Neck Pain Triggers
It is wise to avoid other physical activities such as running, jogging, or trampolining until the neck pain is fully resolved. If your child wishes to avoid gym class and complains of persistent neck pain without any seeming cause consider the possibility of other underlying issues making them unhappy; neck pain in children can be a psychosomatic symptom which feels no less painful but may not simply be resolved through physical means.
Sleep Problems and Children with Neck Pain
Neck pain pillows for neck pain relief in children can include buckwheat pillows, a ‘bean-bag’ type pillow, or even the use of a soft cervical spinal collar to keep the neck still and out of awkward positions during sleep. We’ve all seen the ridiculous positions that children (and adults!) sometimes end up sleeping in so a neck pain pillow designed for a child, or a soft collar may help maintain good posture for healthy and neck pain free sleep. Consult a physician before getting your child to wear a cervical collar, however, as it may be that this could exacerbate some situations. Soft collars are available at pharmacies and should be sized appropriately to make sure of safety.
Preventing Neck Pain in Children
Prevention of neck pain in children involves teaching them to warm up properly before physical activity. Simple stretches performed slowly can be helpful such as rotating the head and neck, touching each ear to the corresponding shoulder, and touching the chin to each shoulder. Avoid using resistance during these exercises, concentrate on stretching rather than strengthening until the child’s neck pain has fully resolved. Some people find that chiropractic treatment is helpful for kids, especially if it appears that there are postural issues at work or a condition such as scoliosis, brachial plexopathy, or congenital spinal issue causing neck pain. Chiropractic treatment for children is often a gentle way to teach them about spinal health, without the fear commonly induced by a hospital setting. Choose a chiropractor who is experienced working with children and who your child feels comfortable with and it may be that chronic neck pain becomes a thing of the past as your child learns how to avoid triggers and improve their general health.
When to Call the Doctor
Most neck pain in children will resolve over the course of a few days to a week but it is wise to make an appointment with your child’s doctor if the pain persists after three or four days, is unresponsive to pain medications, affects their daily activities, prevents proper sleep, or keeps occurring intermittently. Immediate medical attention is needed if your child’s neck pain is:
- severe and lasts more than two hours after the use of pain medications
- associated with numbness in the back, arms, or face
- causing nausea, difficulty swallowing, or excessive drooling
- accompanied by a fever over 37.8°C (100.0°F), with neck stiffness
- causing extreme distress
Monkey See Monkey Do
As a general rule, pain in the front of the neck is associated with a sore throat and/or swollen lymph nodes whereas pain in the back of the neck may have a more serious cause such as meningitis or a cervical spinal issue like scoliosis. Kids do plenty of things that can cause neck pain and, often, they do not know any better until told otherwise. Lead by example, teaching your child to carry things safely by bending at the knees not the back, hugging the load to the chest, and avoiding carrying heavy things with one arm (rather than with both arms). Don’t slouch on the sofa, hunch over your desk, leave things lying around to fall over, ignore safety guidelines during sporting activity, or generally engage in other things that could cause neck pain – your kids look to you for guidance so avoid ill-advised behaviors and reduce the likelihood of recurrent neck pain in your children.
Conservative treatment using pain medications, gentle stretching, heat, and avoidance of potential stressors are the usual methods of neck pain relief in children but where repeated bouts of neck pain occur it is important to seek medical attention to rule out a more serious condition.