What is neck pain?
What a pain in the neck! We rely on that well-worn phrase to describe any number of nuisances. Still, its literal meaning, actual pain in our neck, can stem from a wide variety of causes and respond to many possible treatments, according to Interventional Pain Management Specialist Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Also known as the cervical spine, the neck is formed of bony vertebrae that stretch from the bottom of the skull to the top of the torso. It’s an amazingly complex structure, Dr. Chang notes, since cervical discs between vertebrae work to absorb shocks, while muscles, bones, and ligaments in the neck work together to move the head.
“That’s why there are numerous things that can go awry, triggering neck pain,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “This pain can also take many forms – from a dull ache to tenderness, and from sharp or shooting pain to numbness and tingling.”
Neck pain symptoms can be acute and last for a couple of days, or chronic. Typical cervical symptoms include pain, that is worse after holding the head for an extended period, which is usually called tech neck. Muscle spasms in the neck, tightness, and decreased ability to move the head are common signs of neck pain. Some patients describe their cervical symptoms as stiff neck or pain during movements. In some cases, headaches show neck issues, especially after holding your head in one position.
In case of severe cervical spine pain or pain that spreads or radiates into other body parts, and causes tingling or numbness, nausea, and dizziness, you should definitely see a doctor. Neck pain can spread into the shoulders or upper back.
Certain risk factors make you more prone to suffering from neck pain, Dr. Chang says. These include experiencing sports injuries, car accidents, bull or bronco riding, or other jolts that can damage the bones, ligaments, and muscles in the neck region.
“Most of us deal with pain or stiffness in our neck once in a while, whether we’ve been injured or not,” he adds. “Even poor posture or spending too much time hunched over your phone or computer can lead to this extremely common condition.”
However, neck pain can directly stem from a long list of more weighty neck pain causes. According to Dr. Chang, these include:
- Worn joints: Wear-and-tear arthritis, known medically as osteoarthritis, can target neck joints as we age, just as it does other joints throughout the body.
- Muscle strains: Muscle strains are among the common causes of neck pain. After making repetitive movements for a long time, you can feel some stiffness in the neck or upper back.
- Nerve compression: Herniated, protruding discs can press on neck nerves extending from the spinal cord, prompting pain. So can bone spurs in the neck’s vertebrae, Dr. Chang says.
- Disease: Rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, meningitis, or cancer can sometimes lead to neck pain. But these causes, particularly cancer, are less common, he says.
- Injuries: Some injuries involve cervical spine pain symptoms. These include whiplash injuries when the head jerks backward and forward, affecting neck tissues.
- “It’s not always easy to pinpoint what’s causing neck pain,” Dr. Chang explains. “A good rule of thumb is to see a doctor if your neck pain lasts weeks or longer without feeling better.”
Most of the time, neck pain can be effectively tackled with simple, at-home measures, easing your symptoms within a few days. These home-based treatments include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen.
- Heat and cold packs, which can be alternated for up to 20 minutes several times each day.
- Gentle exercises such as neck and shoulder rolls and neck stretches.
- If these tactics don’t do the trick, Dr. Chang advises seeing a doctor. After diagnosing the cause of your neck pain using tools such as blood tests, nerve conduction tests, or x-rays and other imaging tests, you may be recommended to try the following:
- Physical therapy to teach you correct posture and neck-strengthening exercises.
- Prescription-strength anti-inflammatories, pain relievers, or muscle relaxants.
- Soft neck collar to temporarily support the neck and ease pressure on painful structures.
- Steroid injections near painful nerve roots in the neck to tamp down inflammation and pain.
- TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) using electrodes placed on the skin to deliver small, pain-relieving electrical pulses.
- Traction using weights, pulleys, or other tools to stretch your neck gently.
- Surgery as a last resort if no other treatments are effective.
“While your specific ‘pain in the neck’ might have many possible causes or ways to treat it, most cases ease quickly and don’t linger,” Dr. Chang says. “Remember to use your doctor as a valued resource if you’re stumped about your neck pain.”
Many of the things we buy are items that make our lives easier or better – so why should it be different for our backs? A huge array of products keeps the spine in mind and can aid back pain relief, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, interventional pain management specialist, double board-certified in interventional pain management and anesthesiology with Atlantic Spine Center.
Neck pain is easier to prevent than treat. Keeping your head centered over the spine is vital, as it is considered a healthy posture. Keeping your devices at eye level reduces the pressure on neck muscles and prevents neck pain.
It’s always a good idea to have a little break once in a while to move a little and gently stretch your neck and shoulders. Try to have such breaks every 20-30 minutes.
High-quality equipment, such as an ergonomic chair, table, standing desk, and proper monitor, make it easier to maintain good posture while working.