Running is a popular and effective form of exercise for improving cardiovascular health. However, neck pain can make running difficult and uncomfortable. If you’re a runner who experiences neck soreness, stiffness, or pain, you may wonder if you need to stop running altogether or if you can run through the discomfort. Here’s what you need to know about running with neck pain.
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Causes of Neck Pain in Runners
There are several possible causes for neck pain in runners:
- Poor posture – Running with your head and neck jutting forward strains the muscles and joints. Over time, this bad form leads to imbalance and pain.
- Muscle tension – Tight neck and upper back muscles from physical or mental stress can cause neck soreness.
- Injury – Muscle strains or pinched nerves in the neck from injury or overuse result in sometimes severe pain.
- Arthritis – Inflammation and degeneration in the cervical spine due to arthritis is a common cause of chronic neck pain.
- Disc problems – Bulging or herniated discs can irritate spinal nerves and cause debilitating neck and arm pain.
Dangers of Running with Neck Pain
Attempting to run through more than mild neck soreness has risks including:
- Worsening the existing neck pain by overusing inflamed muscles and joints.
- Causing new injuries by compensating for the neck pain and changing your running form.
- Distracting you from hazards in your path, increasing the chance of accidents.
- Collapsing or passing out if you have severe pain from a serious injury like a herniated disc.
- Requiring surgery if a major injury like a herniated disc is aggravated.
When to Stop Running Immediately
You should stop running right away and avoid further aggravation of your neck pain if you have:
- Sharp, stabbing pain that radiates down your arm or causes numbness/tingling in your fingers
- Muscle weakness or loss of coordination in your arms or legs
- Dizziness, impaired balance, or vertigo
- Bladder or bowel incontinence (a medical emergency)
- These symptoms suggest a severe injury like a herniated disc or spinal instability. Seek prompt medical evaluation. Running risks permanent nerve damage or paralysis.
Tips for Running with Mild Neck Discomfort
For mild to moderate muscular neck soreness without neurological symptoms, you may be able to keep running safely with some adjustments:
- Warm up with gentle neck stretches before and after running. Avoid overstretching.
- Maintain proper upright posture when running. Don’t crane your neck forward.
- Ice sore neck muscles for 15 minutes after running to control inflammation.
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories if recommended by your doctor.
- Use heating pads on low setting to relax tense neck muscles.
- Run shorter distances and slower pace until your neck pain improves.
- Consider switching temporarily to non-impact cardio like the elliptical machine or swimming.
- See a physical therapist to fix muscle imbalance or poor running form.
- If neck pain lasts over a week, see your doctor to rule out serious causes.
Preventing Neck Pain When Running
You can take proactive measures to help prevent neck pain from developing:
- Do strength training to build up your neck and upper back muscles.
- Incorporate regular stretching focused on your neck, shoulders, and chest.
- Use proper posture when sitting at a computer and ergonomic equipment.
- Get occasional massages to relax tight neck and back muscles.
- Maintain ideal running form without poking your head forward excessively.
- Replace running shoes every 300-500 miles to prevent imbalances.
- Consider custom shoe inserts if you have leg length inequality.
- Take rest days when your body needs them.
When to See a Doctor
You should make a prompt appointment with your doctor if you have severe or persistent neck pain, pain that radiates down the arm, numbness/tingling, loss of coordination, or bladder/bowel problems. These require medical evaluation to rule out serious spinal conditions. For milder neck pain, see your doctor if home treatment and rest don’t help within a week. Physical therapy, medication, injections, or rarely surgery may be required.
The bottom line is neck pain is common when running but usually manageable. Seek immediate medical care for severe symptoms. Otherwise, mild neck discomfort can often be treated with rest, proper form, home remedies, and physical therapy. With appropriate treatment, most runners can eventually return to running pain-free.