What Causes Neck Pain?
If you have ever felt pain in your neck, you are not alone – estimates reveal that about one in three individuals are affected by neck pain at least once a year. Neck pain can result from various things such as simple movements, poor posture and underlying medical conditions, including osteoarthritis. In this article we outline the symptoms and causes of neck pain, and briefly discuss some of the common treatment options available.
What Are the Symptoms of Neck Pain?
Symptoms of neck pain vary among individuals and may pose as:
- Persistent discomfort in the neck area
- Pain that worsens with prolonged positions
- Tightness and spasms of the neck muscles
- Difficulty with movement of the neck
What Causes Neck Pain?
Your neck is an extremely flexible part of your body that has the task of supporting your head, which weighs about 11 pounds. These factors make it susceptible to injuries and conditions that can cause pain and limit function. Neck pain can be triggered by several causes.
Too many hours leaning over your smartphone or laptop can cause muscle strain in the neck area. You can also strain your muscles while sleeping, reading or watching TV in bed, and grinding your teeth, among other simple movements.
The joints in the neck area, similar to other joints in your body, tend to wear down as you age. A condition called osteoarthritis causes the cartilage within your bones to deteriorate, which can result in severe neck pain and reduced range of motion.
Neck pain can also be triggered by disc herniation in the neck that results in nerve irritation and compression.
Car accidents may result in the head being jerked backward and forward with great force, which may strain the sensitive tissues of the neck. Additionally, sports injuries may also result in neck injury leading to pain and decreased function.
Some diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, or meningitis can cause severe neck pain.
When to See a Doctor
You should consult your doctor if your neck pain continually worsens, or includes numbness, or a tingling sensation in your arms and legs, as these symptoms may indicate a more serious underlying issue. There are other, more serious symptoms, that may accompany neck pain, such as:
- Lump in neck
- Breathing problems
- Pain in the arms and legs
- Inability to touch your chest with your chin
- Bladder or bowel dysfunction
Treatment for Neck Pain
Your doctor will perform a thorough medical history of your neck pain symptoms and perform a physical examination of the area. They may also order additional testing including x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), blood tests, electromyography (EMG) and/or lumbar puncture to rule out more sinister pathology. After determining the cause of your neck pain, your doctor may recommend a combination of the treatments outlined below.
Ice and Heat Therapy
This is a very effective and easy method for treating neck pain. Applying ice for 10 to 15 minutes at a time will help to decrease inflammation and pain. While applying heat for 20 minutes at a time can help to increase blood flow and relax the affected muscles.
Different types of stretches and strengthening exercises can be prescribed by a physical therapist to help minimize neck pain and increase range of motion and strength of the neck muscles.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil, etc.) and naproxen sodium, or pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, can help to decrease inflammation and relieve neck pain.
Cervical or neck collars are quite effective in treating chronic pain or acute trauma in the neck area. Neck collars minimize the movement of the cervical spine and help to prevent further damage to your spine or neck muscles.
Chiropractic neck adjustments (cervical manipulation) can be used to restore normal joint range of motion in the neck. It is quite effective in helping to relieve neck pain associated with pinched nerves, as well as muscle sprains and strains. Additionally, chiropractors can help to improve your posture by prescribing postural exercises, which help to relieve unnecessary pressure on the muscles and joints of the neck.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese healing technique that involves inserting thin needles inside various pressure points in the body. These needles help relieve pain by triggering the release of endorphins; the natural painkillers of the body. By inserting needles at certain points in the neck, acupuncture can effectively reduce neck pain. Avoid acupuncture if you have a prior bleeding disorder, or if you are taking blood thinners.
Prevention of Neck Pain
Some simple lifestyle changes can help to prevent neck pain.
Maintain Good Posture
While sitting and standing, make sure that your hips and shoulders are in the same alignment, with your ears positioned directly over your shoulders. While working for a long period, the top surface of your laptop screen should be just below your eye-line. Place your knees just below the hips. Try to keep you spine in a neutral position and avoid leaning forwards or backwards.
While sleeping, try to keep your head and neck in alignment with the rest of your spine by using a soft, small pillow under your neck. In order to maintain a neutral posture, it is best to sleep on your side with a small pillow placed between your knees, or on your back with a small pillow placed under the small of your back and under your knees.
Take Frequent Breaks
Taking frequent breaks to stretch your neck and shoulders throughout the workday, every 20 to 30 minutes, can help to prevent neck pain.
Properly Use Your Phone
Avoid tucking the phone between your shoulder and ear when you take calls. It’s best to use a headset or speakerphone.
Avoid Carrying Heavy Bags
Strapping heavy bags over your shoulder may cause your neck muscles to strain. Try alternative options instead.
Neck pain is a common complaint, with millions of people suffering with some degree of neck pain each year. There are a variety of treatment options available for neck pain that can help to minimize pain and improve range of motion of your neck. Making small lifestyle changes can also go a long way to preventing future episodes of neck pain.