Your neck has a lot riding on it — literally. Day after day, it carries around an 11-pound bowling ball (aka your head) while protecting something very delicate: the top of your spinal cord. No wonder it feels so good to rest your head on the pillow at night. And no wonder your neck gets sore on occasion.

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Neck pain is a common reason for doctor’s visits and disability, according to Harvard Medical School. But the cause of neck pain isn’t always easy to pinpoint, and one treatment does not fit all.

Some cases of neck pain — injury, disease, disc problems — may require a doctor's help. (For severe neck pain, see a doctor immediately.) But for simple cases caused by a ligament strain, muscle tension or even sleeping wrong, these treatments may bring relief.

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Heat or cold. Apply a heating pad or an ice pack or cool compress — whatever feels best — for about 10 to 20 minutes at a time, four to six times per day, the American Osteopathic Association recommends. The cold helps reduce inflammation, while heat increases blood flow in the area. If you’re opting for cold packs, apply them in 20-minute intervals for the first day. Never apply ice directly to your skin; make sure there's a towel or cloth in between.

Neck stretches. This video from the Mayo Clinic shows simple stretches you can do.

Physical therapy. A physical therapist will show you exercises to stretch and strengthen your muscles and explain posture problems that may be contributing to your neck pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Acupuncture. A form of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body to relieve pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. A 2012 analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found patients who underwent acupuncture reported less neck pain than patients who didn’t.

The Alexander Technique. Practitioners of this technique teach you how to change your posture and movements so they're more ergonomic and create less tension. A 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared people with chronic neck pain who saw their primary care doctor for the pain with those who also got acupuncture or Alexander Technique lessons. People in the latter group reported less pain and disability.

Massage. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) says massaging the tender area can help. Check with your health insurance provider — some will cover massage therapy, but only if it’s prescribed by a doctor.

OTC pain relievers. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help alleviate minor pain and reduce swelling, AAOS says.

Protecting your neck

Neck pain can be triggered by everyday activities, such as bending over a desk, work bench or sewing table, working at a computer with a monitor that’s too high or too low, sleeping in an awkward position or sitting, exercising or driving with bad posture (extending the head too far forward is a common problem).

Treat your neck with more TLC by following these tips.

Spring for a new pillow. Make sure you're using the right firmness for your sleeping position. Or, in the short-term, try sleeping with a rolled towel under your neck. You might also try a pillow designed for people with neck pain.

Evaluate your work environment. Check out specific instructions here for setting the height of your computer monitor, your chair and more.

Put down the phone. Whether you’re at home or your office, don’t wedge your phone between your shoulder and neck. Invest in a headset or just use speaker phone.

Travel lightly. Strapping heavy bags over your shoulders can strain your neck. If you have a heavy load, consider using a bag on wheels.

Don’t smoke. Smoking speeds the breakdown of discs in the neck and puts you at increased risk for neck pain, according to the American Lung Association.

Get some exercise. As little as two minutes of exercise a day can reduce pain and tenderness in adults with neck and shoulder problems according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Neck 911

In some cases you shouldn’t wait neck pain out. If you also have a headache and fever, or if your neck is so stiff that you can’t easily lower your chin toward your chest, you may have meningitis and need to get to the hospital as soon as possible, according to the National Institutes of Health. If your neck pain comes with other symptoms such as a sweating, feeling nauseated, vomiting, arm or jaw pain or shortness of breath you might be having a heart attack and need to call 911 immediately.

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Kathleen Heins is a Greenville, S.C.-based writer specializing in health, well-being and organizing whose work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, USA Weekend and Reader’s Digest, among other publications.