Neck pain is very common and often preventable, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center. About one in three people experience neck pain at least once a year. The chance of having it also increases with age, and women are more prone to experience neck pain.
Neck pain is usually located around the spine beneath the head, but can radiate to the shoulders or arms. Even though neck pain is not a disease, it can be a symptom of many conditions.
In this article, Dr. Chang explains why we have neck pain and offers tips to avoid it.
Neck pain symptoms
Comprised of bony vertebrae stretching from the base of the skull to the upper torso, the neck (known medically as the cervical spine) can hurt for many reasons, explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. And when it does, discomfort can come in many forms, including a dull ache, shooting or pulsing pain, tenderness, numbness, and tingling.
“Neck pain can also worsen when we turn our heads or move our neck in other ways,” Dr. Chang says. “Since cervical discs between the vertebrae absorb shock and bones, ligaments and muscles in the neck help our heads move, there are many small and large ways this process can go wrong, leading to neck pain.”
Pain is the most typical symptom, but a patient may also experience other unpleasant sensations, such as muscle tightness or spasms, which can sometimes lead to difficulty with head movement. A person can also experience more frequent or intense headaches. These symptoms can occur separately or simultaneously.
Neck pain causes
With numerous possible triggers, neck pain typically stems from 3 primary causes: injury, inflammation, or other abnormalities in that part of the body, Dr. Chang notes.
Problems and conditions that can cause neck pain include:
- Neck injuries such as whiplash
- Pinched nerves
- Poor posture
- Sleeping in a bad position
- Staying in one position for too long
- Herniated spinal discs
- Degenerative disc disease
- Jerking the neck during movement or exercise
- Lymph node swelling due to infection
- Fibromyalgia or other conditions affecting neck muscles
“Clearly, neck pain causes are quite diverse and not always easy to pinpoint,” Dr. Chang says. “That’s why seeing a doctor if it lasts weeks or longer without easing is a wise move.”
If the neck pain is chronic, it can be caused by several conditions, such as cervical degenerative disc disease, which becomes painful when discs lose hydration; cervical osteoarthritis, when the facet joints wear down; cervical herniated disc, which can tear and get infected.
You should consult a doctor if the pain is severe or caused by an accident. Pain can last for a few days without getting better, which is also a reason for a check-up. Also, neck pain can spread down your limbs or be accompanied by a headache, numbness, and weakness.
To summarize, neck pain can be caused by muscle strains, worn joints, injuries, and nerve compression.
Risks of neck pain
As neck pain is usually a symptom of other conditions, the most obvious risk is the further development of these diseases. For example, with time, spinal degeneration can lead to the narrowing of the foramen and spinal canal, resulting in weakness and numbness and needing proper treatment and, in some cases, surgery.
Among the risks of neck pain are heart attacks. Neck pain can be a sign of a heart attack if accompanied by sweating, nausea, and shortness of breath. In this case, you should immediately call 911.
Meningitis is another potentially fatal condition that has neck pain among its symptoms. If you have sensitivity to light, fever, headache, or stiff neck, you should seek urgent medical help.
Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and spondylosis are several conditions of the musculoskeletal system that cause pain, swelling, numbness, or tenderness.
Neck stiffness or pain can also be caused by spinal cancer, but this is rare.
Neck pain complications
As with neck pain risks, the complications depend on the cause of the pain. For example, if the pain was caused by sleeping on the wrong pillow, the pain can go away once you switch the pillow without further damage. But if you continue to sleep the same way, further tissue damage can occur.
The most obvious complication of neck pain is chronic pain, which can continue even if the original cause of the pain has healed.
There can also be infections, and long-term damage to vertebrae, spinal cord, and neck nerves, including compressed nerves. Among other complications are osteoporosis, meningitis, and arthritis.
Remember, that a healthcare provider can properly assess your symptoms and determine the correct treatment plan. Don’t hesitate to consult a doctor, especially if you experience symptoms such as severe pain or pain that worsens, fever or chills, numbness, tingling or other unpleasant sensations in ligaments, and weakness in arms or legs.
Neck pain diagnosis
Your medical team needs to understand the diagnosis to choose the right treatment plan. To do this, a doctor usually performs several steps.
The first one is a physical exam. At this stage, your health care provider examines your body to check the source of pain, and asses your movements, such as your ability to stand and sit, walk and lift ligaments. During this exam, a doctor looks at the spine, head, ligaments, pelvis, and abdomen. The goal of this step is to assess the skin condition and to check for numbness or sensitiveness.
The second step in determining diagnosis after the physical exam is testing. Testing can include imaging and neurological tests. Imaging tests help reveal fractures or bone degenerations, as they provide a picture of the body’s inner parts. Your doctor can advise an X-ray to check for arthritis or broken bones, and MRI or CT scans to reveal herniated discs.
Neurological tests assess the function of the spinal cord and brain. Usually, patients are asked to move fingers or toes and perform other special movements. Some blood tests and nerve studies can help determine an infection or nerve compression that causes pain.
Neck pain treatment
Once again, the treatment depends on the exact diagnosis. So, the first step is to determine the condition. To do so, a physician performs a physical exam, which helps to rule out some conditions. During this exam, it would be best to tell the doctor about all prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and supplements.
Among other diagnostic procedures are blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, electromyography, and lumbar puncture.
You can put ice or heat on the painful area to ease the pain. Gentle stretching or physical therapy can also help with unpleasant sensations. Also, a doctor can recommend pain medications, including corticosteroid injections, muscle relaxants, and a neck collar to limit neck movements.
In some more severe cases, you might need surgery. There are several surgeries that can help with back pain. Fusion targets joining two vertebrae with metal plates to limit the movement in this area. An artificial disc can be inserted to replace the cushion tissue between two vertebrae. Discectomy involves a partial removal of a vertebra to reduce the pressure on a nerve.
Some alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or massage, can ease the symptoms, especially if combined with traditional treatment. Among the complementary therapies are osteopath or chiropractor treatments, Shiatsu, and yoga. Some studies show that adding such alternative treatments can improve the effectiveness of traditional therapies. But such complementary treatment shouldn’t be your only treatment plan.
Neck pain exercises
While applying heat or ice to an aching spot can relieve a symptom, as well as certain medications, electrical stimulation, and other procedures, constitute a long-term treatment plan.
Exercises and muscle release techniques can be used as short-term pain relieving means and as a part of pain treatment and prevention. The goals of flexibility and strength exercises are to improve back and abdominal muscles and help a person maintain a good posture.
Remember that in training, regularity is vital. So, it’s better to perform several exercises on a daily basis rather than have one intense workout once a month. Regular physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy body weight, which is quite important as excess weight increases the pressure on the spine and promotes pain.
It’s better to consult a doctor before starting the exercise program, but in most cases, patients are advised to perform low-impact aerobic activities and gentle stretching exercises. Aerobic activities boost heart health and increase blood flow to muscles and tissues. Stretching exercises improve flexibility in the spine, hips, and legs, which prevents strains and sprains. You can also try some core-strengthening exercises to work on abdominal and back muscles, that protect the spine.
Neck pain prevention
It’s common sense, of course, that preventing neck pain is far preferable to relieving it after it’s occurred.
It is impossible to prevent an accident that can cause pain, but there are steps to reduce the chance of it. For example, you can drive carefully or keep your floor tidy, so you don’t trip over something.
While not every possible cause of neck pain is avoidable, Dr. Chang says he offers these tips to prevent it:
- Avoid slouching and practice good posture.
- Place your computer screen at eye level with a document holder that positions your work at screen level.
- Avoid cradling your phone between your shoulders and neck.
- Make sure your bed pillow keeps your neck straight.
- Exercise your neck daily by slowly stretching it up and down and side to side. “Consistently stretching your neck muscles help keep them toned and strong,” Dr. Chang explains.
- Carry heavy objects evenly instead of relying more on one side of the body.
- Avoid jerking motions during sports and other maneuvers to minimize the risk of neck injury.
It’s always a good idea to add some movement to your life, but it is especially worth it to prevent back pain, so try to schedule physical activities. Strengthening muscles and bones are vital in preventing spinal pain. Getting some proper exercises and stretches improves your muscular-skeletal system health.
Also, quitting smoking decreases the chance of neck pain developing.
Another risk factor for neck pain developing is being overweight, so maintaining a healthy weight is an essential preventive means. Following a balanced healthy diet is also beneficial for muscle tissue and bone strength, so keep vitamin D levels and zinc and calcium in mind.
Back pain can also be caused by chronic stress that makes your muscles stiff. Learning stress-management techniques, participating in counseling, and meditating are ways to lower the amount of stress you face and reduce muscle stiffness.
Another tip would be to invest in a high-quality mattress, pillow, and chair. As most people have a sedentary lifestyle now, having a good chair and table that allows you to maintain a healthy posture is highly important. Sleeping correctly can also improve your pain, so you can try sleeping on your side with a pillow between your legs to reduce the pressure on your spine.
“The good news is that neck pain almost always results from a minor problem that improves within days,” Dr. Chang says. “Almost all of us will experience a ‘pain in the neck’ here and there, but it doesn’t usually last.”
What to know even more? Check out our quick 3D Animation video about Degenerative Disc Disease and how it creates pain in the spine: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiQQ6-WLv3o)