Neck pain affects most people at some point in life. In many cases, the pain that occurs localizes in one area of the neck, and resolves gradually over a day or two. It is when neck pain becomes a frequent or chronic incident that we want to look more closely at potential causes. One of the ways that we move toward finding that cause is to look at symptoms.
What Neck Pain May Feel Like
There are several ways that neck pain may manifest. For some, it is a persistent, dull headache. In other cases, the neck may just feel stiff and tight. Because the cervical spinal segment extends from the base of the skull to shoulder level, there are a number of symptoms that may occur along this length. These include:
- Sharp pain in the neck or shoulder area.
- Severe headache.
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, usually on one side only.
- Pain that radiates from the neck or shoulder down one arm.
What Causes Neck Pain?
Symptoms such as those mentioned above may occur as a direct result of injury, such as whiplash or a sporting accident. An initial examination will also seek to rule out meningitis, infectious inflammation in the membrane that surrounds the spinal cord.
A large number of the neck injuries that occur are diagnosed as a sprain or strain. Over time, however, the breakdown of discs in the cervical spine could lead to chronic problems that require more advanced care. It is important to obtain a proper diagnosis for neck pain early in the process in order to decrease the risk of nerve compression due to disc degeneration.
Sprains and strains may occur due to:
- Sports injury (stinger).
- Repetitive motion and overuse of the neck muscles.
- Maintaining an awkward head position for too long, such as cradling the phone during a long conversation or sleeping in a bad position.
- Poor posture.
How Posture Could Cause Neck Pain
Next to unexpected injury, poor posture is a leading cause of chronic neck pain. This is because cervical alignment is dependent on the position of the spinal segments lower in the back, and also on the position of the head. Think of the head as a bowling bowl, with all of its weight sitting upon the 7 joints and muscles that make up the neck. In order to support this weight, the neck has a specific curvature. When that curvature is altered by posture, problems may occur. This can take years to develop, which means we have time to learn better posture to reduce the risk of permanent damage.
When the head and shoulders are in a forward position (think of looking down at your phone), the vertebrae at the lowest part of the cervical spine carry undue stress. This causes them to wear down more quickly. At the same time, this particular posture also causes the muscles in the upper neck to work harder to offset the forward pull of gravity.
When Neck Pain Becomes Chronic
Neck pain that exists for more than 3 months is considered chronic and may be the result of something more than a sprain or strain. Usually, chronic neck pain is linked to a problem in a disc or facet joint of the cervical spine. Some of these conditions are discussed in more detail on our Discs page. They include:
- Degenerative disc disease, the progressive deterioration of the central part of a disc in the cervical spine.
- Herniated disc, or the seepage of the protein material from the inner disc chamber through a small tear.
- Osteoarthritis, the breakdown of the cartilage in a facet joint that could lead to friction between two vertebrae as well as nerve impingement.
Treatment for Neck Pain
Initially, neck pain may be remedied with rest, heat or ice, and light massage. Chronic neck pain needs therapeutic care to restore comfort and inhibit further damage. Physical therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture all offer promising results in combination with lifestyle modifications to support proper posture.
If neck pain has become persistent or severe enough to inhibit your ability to work well or engage in activities that you enjoy, it is time to obtain professional care. Restoring optimal alignment and strength within the cervical spine can significantly improve comfort and, along with it, quality of life.
Contact an Advanced Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation office near you for more information on our services.