What we call our neck is also known as the cervical spine, which begins at the base of the skull and is made up of seven small vertebrae. This portion of the spine supports the full weight of your head- an average of 12 pounds. The cervical spine can move your head in nearly any direction, which offers a lot of flexibility, but also leads the neck vulnerable to pain and most common car accident injuries.
Most everyone has suffered from neck pain at some point in their lives, and with about 18% of Americans reporting severe pain in the neck area, it’s no wonder that millions of people receive treatment for this type of pain each year. While neck pain is a common ailment, it can manifest in a number of ways- for some, it originates in the top of the neck near the base of the head, while others will experience pain in the shoulders and lower neck, or even in the neck with pains that shoot down your arms.
Part of the reason necks are likely to experience pain is because of the biomechanics of the cervical spine. Whether you are sitting still, moving in gentle but repetitive motions, or engaging in high-impact activities like sports, the neck is left vulnerable. Wear and tear and traumatic injury can both cause severe neck damage that leads to severe pain when not treated properly.
Causes of Neck Pain
Because of the complexity of the cervical spine, neck pain can come from a wide range of issues. Something as innocuous as sleeping in the wrong position or holding tension in the shoulders can lead to bothersome symptoms. Genetic issues, degeneration over time, or traumatic events like falls are also all possible causes. Some of the most common causes of neck pain include:
Injury and Accidents
In many events that involve force or impact, the head may move at unnatural angles and speeds, leading to damage to the neck. A common example is whiplash, when the movement rebounds in the other direction quickly, causing damage to the soft tissue in the area. Whiplash is typically associated with car accidents, but it can occur during sports or other high-speed activities. The severity of which will determine how long should you go to a doctor after an accident.
Other types of injuries can impact the neck as well. Fractures and slipped discs are possible in the neck, or in some cases, a neck can even be broken by a fall.
As we age, the wear and tear on our bodies can lead to degeneration of important support systems, including the neck and spine. A number of conditions become more likely as you age, including osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and degenerative diseases that can cause neck pain. While some of this is genetic or unavoidable, you can prevent worsening with active and healthy lifestyles.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Between each vertebra in the cervical spine is a small, gel-like disc that cushions the bones and prevents friction. Over time, these discs can begin to lose elasticity and height, making them less effective. This also leaves the discs prone to bulging or herniating and becoming out of place, where they can compress nearby nerves. This can cause pain as well as tingling and numbness in the arms.
A number of lifestyle and risk factors can leave you vulnerable to neck pain even without a specific condition or cause. Poor posture, obesity, and weak muscles can disrupt the balance of the spine, causing the neck to bend forward as compensation. Stress or emotional tension can also cause tightness and contraction in the muscles that lead to pain and stiffness.
Seeking Care for Neck Pain
For those suffering from neck pain, there are likely a number of home remedies you have tried in order to seek relief. Over-the-counter pain medication, rest, and ice or heat can help with acute neck pain or allow you to feel better enough to continue your daily activities. However, without treatment, the majority of neck pain will persist until the root cause of the issue is addressed. In some cases, neck pain may even be caused by damage to another part of the body. A specialist will be able to help you identify this root cause so that your treatment plan is as successful as possible.
When you visit a specialist, they will likely start by asking you to describe your symptoms and the type of pain you are feeling. From there, they will perform a physical evaluation of your neck, feeling the area and possibly performing tests in which you move your neck and complete various tasks. If these tests make your specialist think there is a larger issue with your neck, you may be sent for diagnostic imaging such as x-rays or MRIs. This information should help determine a treatment plan suited to your needs.
Treatment Options for Neck Pain
Depending on the cause and severity of your neck injury, a number of treatment options will be available. Most specialists will take a conservative approach to begin with, starting with non-invasive and natural treatment options. Only if those do not lead to improvement will you move towards more invasive options like surgery. Some treatments you may be recommended include:
- Physical therapy: A certified physical therapist will create a routine of gentle, targeted exercises that are designed to help you regain strength and improve flexibility. These exercises will also help to reduce pain and return your neck to the state it was in previously.
- Medicine: While you should not rely on medication, inflammation can be a problem and can impede treatment, so pain medicine may be prescribed to counteract the swelling. If you are in too much pain to undergo any treatment like physical therapy, medication can also help you begin to reach your goals.
- Injections: In cases of severe inflammation or chronic issues, corticosteroid injections and medial branch blocks can be used to relieve pain in a variety of cases.
- Massage: Medical massage therapy is able to address inflammation and problems with the muscles or tissue in your neck, breaking up knots and relieving tension.
- Chiropractic adjustments: Using manual cervical manipulation, a chiropractor can move the spine so that it is aligned and able to function properly moving forward. An adjustment can improve mobility and restore range of motion in the neck.
In most cases, your care will be a combination of these treatments and potentially others that are designed to work together for recovery. Depending on the cause of your neck pain, treatment may not completely eliminate your discomfort, but it can help to make symptoms manageable and prevent worsening of symptoms over time.
Preventing Neck Pain
In many cases, there are steps you can take to prevent neck pain from occurring or becoming chronic. The majority of cases are associated with age-related degeneration combined with poor posture. Simple changes to your daily routine can lessen both of these effects. Some ways you can prevent neck problems include:
- Use good posture when standing or sitting. Your shoulders should be in a straight line over your hips, and your ears should be directly over your shoulders.
- If you sit for a long time during the day, take frequent breaks to move around and stretch your neck and shoulders.
- If you work on a computer, adjust your desk so that the monitor is at eye level. You should be sitting so your knees are slightly lower than your hips.
- When using the phone, avoid tucking it between your ear and shoulder. Use a headset or speakerphone instead.
- Quit smoking if you currently do, as it can put you at higher risk of neck pain.
- Avoid carrying heavy bags using a strap over your shoulder, as the weight can strain your neck.
- Choose a sleep position that aligns your head and neck with the rest of your body. A small pillow under your neck is ideal, with your thighs elevated on pillows.