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Neck pain in children – the right approach

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News Desk |

Minor bumps and bruises are everyday harmless findings in the life of an active child. However, experiencing neck pain as a child can sometimes be startling. Such a discomfort can be a projection of improper and unhealthy lifestyles; hence it is vital to identify the cause in order to determine the best course of treatment. Neck pain is often temporary and goes away within 1 or 2 days without treatment, however, it can also be chronic and can affect a child’s quality of life, social activities and education.

Causes of Neck Pain

Strained Neck Muscles. In teens, new neck pain is mostly from stretched neck muscles (muscle overuse). The most common modern cause is working with the head flexed down. Such head bending occurs with texting or looking at smartphones and laptops/tablets. Reading in bed or working on a computer for hours can also trigger neck pain. The neck naturally keeps the head in a neutral position, because of the head’s weight (up to 5 kgs). Hence, extended bending of the neck can exhaust and overstretch the muscles holding the head in place.

Infected Lymph Node. At all ages, swollen lymph nodes can irritate and cause spasm of the neck muscle it lies against. Lymph nodes typically swell in response to simple infections, such as the cold, flu, or strep throat. Whiplash Injury. Caused by a sudden movement of the head and neck causing the head to snap back and forth and stretch the neck muscles, nerves and ligaments. This type of injury can occur in sports injuries and car accidents.

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Meningitis (Very Serious). A bacterial infection of the membrane that covers the spinal cord and brain. The main symptoms are a stiff neck, headache, confusion, and fever. A stiff neck means that the child cannot touch the chin to the chest. Younger children are lethargic or so irritable that they can’t be consoled. If not treated early, the child can suffer brain damage

Other rare causes of neck pain in children include traumatic injury from a fall or car accident, cancer and childhood arthritis.

Home Remedies to Ease the Pain

It is crucial to listen to the child when they describe their symptoms to help identify and treat the underlying cause of their pain. In the short term, home remedies may help the child find relief. Here are some home remedies to help treat mild to moderate neck pain:

  • In the first two days, icing is preferred to help reduce swelling and inflammation: Wrap an ice pack or a bag of ice cubes in a towel and apply it to the child’s neck for 20 minutes intermittently.
  • If neck pain persists after a few days, heat may help. To use heat, place a warm compress or an electric heating pad on the child’s neck for 10 minutes. This helps increase blood flow to the muscle. The temperature should be supervised to avoid burns.
  • A warm bath may also help relax tight muscles and relieve pain.
  • A child may get some relief by stretching their neck (exercises mentioned below) throughout the day or a gentle massage.

Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications have formulas that are safe for children. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen (Panadol) or ibuprofen (Brufen), may also help relieve pain. Be sure to follow the instructions on the label and avoid giving young children adult-strength versions of these medications unless a doctor recommends it.

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Some lifestyle changes can help prevent neck pain. For children who use smartphones or other technological devices for long periods of time, the following adjustments may help align the neck and reduce pain:

  • lying down on the back while looking at a cell phone to relieve pressure on the neck
  • keeping the phone at eye level when sitting or standing to keep the back and neck straight
  • taking regular screen breaks to ease pressure on the neck and allow the eyes to rest

Stretching may also help. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest trying the following exercises for 3 minutes each day:

  • touching the ear to each shoulder
  • moving the head forward and backward

A child should perform these stretches slowly and not apply any resistance. If the exercises cause any pain, they should not continue.

Some children may also need to change their sleeping position. Changes may include, sleeping on their back or side instead of their front and sleeping on their side with a pillow between their knees. Poor posture can lead to neck pain, especially in children who stay in one position for extended periods of time. Any movement that involves leaning the head forward and down puts pressure on the neck. As researchers point out, having musculoskeletal pain as a child can signal that the child may have similar problems as an adult.

The pain is often temporary but can cause significant problems with everyday activities. The child may have difficulty turning their head from one side to the other and may not be able to do simple things such as wear a backpack or look down to read! The bottom line is, never leave a child with neck pain unattended and consult a doctor for prolonged pain. Even smaller attention to detail can improve the child’s condition significantly.

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