Neck Pain

During our lives, many of us will have neck pain, and most of us won't know exactly what caused it. In fact, neck pain can start from a whole range of causes. Maybe you slept funny and woke up with a crick that won't go away. You might've been rear-ended in your car and now you have whiplash. Perhaps you twisted it wrong one day in one of those high-intensity aerobic classes.

Even though most of us will experience neck pain, we won't all feel it in the same way. Sometimes, it's just on one side of your neck; sometimes, pain shoots down your arms. A problem in your neck may even cause terrible headaches or dizziness. Symptoms may be gone in a few days, or you may have long-term pain that limits what you can do every day. No matter what's causing your neck pain, it hurts, and you're probably very eager to get rid of it.

Your head is a lot to carry around—it can weigh 15 pounds or more. Not only does your neck fully support all that weight, it enables you to nod your head, shake your head, and turn your head. No other part of your spine has the ability to move so much. Technically, your neck is called the cervical spine, and it begins at the base of your skull. It contains 7 small bones (vertebrae), which doctors label C1 to C7 (the 'C' means cervical). The numbers 1 to 7 indicate the level of the vertebrae. C1 is closest to the skull, while C7 is closest to the chest.

To get the best treatment for your neck, it's important to recognize and understand the symptoms. With neck pain, you may have symptoms such as:

  • Neck soreness on one or both sides
  • Burning pain
  • Tingling sensations
  • Stiffness
  • Pain around your shoulder blades
  • Pain, numbness, or weakness in your arm
  • Trouble swallowing, talking, writing, or walking
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Tiredness
  • Unintentional weight loss

You must treat your neck pain properly. Seek medical attention if your pain or related symptoms persists for more than a few days—and seek immediate attention if you have neck pain with any of the following emergency signs:

  • High fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Irritability
  • Severe tenderness with neck movement
  • Numbness, weakness, and/or tingling
  • You have recently sustained a head or neck injury

You need to know what's causing your neck pain because that impacts your treatment options. As you probably know, there are a lot of ways to experience neck pain. It may be mild or severe, numbing or burning, in your neck or in your hand. There's a variety of symptoms because there's a variety of causes of neck pain. A few common causes are:

  • Daily Life: Just getting through every day takes its toll on your body, you most likely know that from first-hand experience. Stress and emotional tension can cause muscles to tighten and contract, resulting in pain and stiffness. You can sleep wrong and wake up with a crick in your neck. You can sit too long at your desk, staring at your computer, and give yourself a stiff neck.

  • Muscle strains. Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over a steering wheel, often triggers muscle strains. Neck muscles, particularly those in the back of your neck, become fatigued and eventually strained. When you overuse your neck muscles repeatedly, chronic pain can develop. Even such minor things as reading in bed or gritting your teeth can strain neck muscles.

  • Growing Older: Age-related disorders such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease directly affect the cervical spine.

  • Degenerative disc disease. (DDD) can cause the intervertebral discs to become less hydrated, and they lose their flexibility, elasticity, and shock-absorbing abilities. And over time, you may develop a bulging disc or a herniated disc. With both bulging and herniated discs, the disc material can press on nerve roots, causing neck pain that may run into the arm, tingling, and/or numbness.

  • Osteoarthritis. This is a common joint disorder that causes progressive deterioration of cartilage. Without the cartilage, your bones rub together. The body reacts by forming bone spurs (osteophytes), a self-protection step. However, the bone spurs can press on your nerves, causing neck pain.

  • Spinal stenosis. This causes the small nerve passageways between the vertebrae to narrow, which can compresses and trap the spinal cord and/or spinal nerve roots. Stenosis may cause neck, shoulder, and arm pain and numbness when these nerves are unable to function normally.

  • Injury and Accidents: That's right—whiplash. A sudden forced movement of the head or neck in any direction and the resulting "rebound" of the head or neck in the opposite direction is known as whiplash. The sudden "whipping" motion causes injury to the surrounding and supporting tissues of your neck and head. Muscles react by tightening and contracting, creating muscle fatigue that results in pain and stiffness. Severe whiplash can also involve injury to the intervertebral discs, joints, ligaments, muscles, and nerve roots. Car accidents are the most common cause of whiplash. If you've had a head injury, more than likely, your neck has been affected, too, even if you don't feel it right away. It's wise to seek medical attention immediately.

  • Arthritis. Just like all the other joints in your body, your neck joints tend to deteriorate with age.

  • Disk disorders. As you age, the cushioning disks between your vertebrae become dry, narrowing the spaces in your spinal column where the nerves come out. The disks in your neck also can herniate. This means the inner gelatinous material of a disk protrudes through the disk's tough covering. Nearby nerves can be irritated. Other tissues and bony growths also can press on your nerves as they exit your spinal cord, causing pain.

Your doctor may recommend any of the following treatments.

  • Rehabilitation. Heat, ice or similar treatments combined with an appropriate stretching and muscle strengthening program may enhance the structures that support your cervical spine.

  • Physiotherapy. Modalities designed to decrease inflammation, swelling and increase range of motion of the cervical spine.

  • Traction. This therapy, under supervision of a medical professional and physical therapist, may provide relatively fast relief of some neck pain, especially pain related to nerve root irritation. Relief may last for hours or even days.

Most neck pain is associated with poor posture. The goal is to keep your head centered over your spine, so gravity works with your neck instead of against it. Some simple changes in your daily routine may help.

  • Take frequent breaks if you drive long distances or work long hours at your computer. Keep your head back, over your spine, to reduce neck strain. Try to avoid gritting your teeth.
  • Adjust your desk, chair and computer so the monitor is at eye level. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair's armrests.
  • Avoid tucking the phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. If you use the phone a lot, get a headset.
  • Stretch frequently if you work at a desk. Shrug your shoulders up and down. Pull your shoulder blades together and then relax. Pull your shoulders down while leaning your head to each side to stretch your neck muscles.
  • Balance your base. Stretching the front chest wall muscles and strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade and back of the shoulder can promote a balanced base of support for the neck.
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach. This position puts stress on your neck. Choose a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck.