Neck pain is one of the most common conditions we see in our community. Many causes are known for this body pain, such as osteoarthritis, pinched nerve, herniated disk, repetitive stress, and prolonged computer work.
While working with mobile, tablets, and laptops, poor posture can result in numbness or loss of strength in the arms or hands and even shoulders down to the arm.
However, neck pain can also be caused by trauma, inflammation, and sports injuries.
This article will discuss how neck pain might occur, what the symptoms are, and what treatments are available for this common body pain.
What Is Neck Pain?
Neck pain can describe feelings of heavy pressure, stiffness, reduced mobility, and neck pain and often includes tightness in the upper traps.
There are many causes and symptoms of neck pain. Here, we will explain a few of the most common conditions we see at the office regularly.
Possible Causes of Neck Pain
There is usually more than one reason which results in pain in the neck. Some of the most common reasons of neck pain are mentioned below:
- Muscle Strain or Tension
- Neck Injuries: Whiplash, Neck Sprain, Neck Fractures
- Nerve Compression or Pinched Nerves: Cervical Radiculopathy, Cervical Stenosis
- Poor Ergonomics
- Degenerative Conditions: Cervical Spondylosis, Disc Herniation
- Stress and Anxiety
- Overuse or Repetitive Strain
- Lifestyle Factors: Smoking, Physical Activity, Eating Habits
We have discussed some of these neck pain causes below on a random basis.
Injuries are often associated with a hit to the head from a fall or sports-related contact. However, sometimes, the sudden back-and-forth motion of the neck can also result in a whiplash injury without even hitting the head.
Injuries result in acute neck pain. When treated promptly, they recover faster, with fewer chances of long-lasting chronic neck pain following the injury.
Physically demanding jobs such as construction workers, factory workers, and electricians tend to experience this cause of neck pain more commonly.
Physical strain involves excessive exertion and force that surpasses our body’s threshold and tolerance for pain.
When you push yourself too hard, it’s known as overexertion. This involves physical or mental effort that’s beyond your current abilities.
Overexertion depends on many factors, such as your:
- medical history
- environment or workplace
- specific activity or task
This type of physical strain results in symptoms of stiffness, tightness, and pain in the neck. This cause is easily treatable with a combination of therapy and strengthening exercises to improve the neck musculature tolerance for physical demands.
Poor posture is a common cause of neck pain. Prolonged computer work, typing, and working on our mobile devices, tablets, or laptops result in a poor posture sustained for an extensive time.
In addition, the lack of mobility and frequent breaks result in tension building in the neck, which eventually results in feelings of stiffness and pain.
Aging is inevitable. However, aging is not a guaranteed explanation for pain and discomfort. If you have neck pain, don’t automatically blame it on age.
Sometimes, muscle tightness and joint restrictions are easily treatable despite your age. Other conditions like osteoarthritis can result in pain.
However, proper management of these conditions allows for significant pain relief and a slow progression.
Our neck is highly innervated. Many important neurovascular structures exit the neck and run down our shoulders and arms.
Compression to these structures via a disc bulge, fascial restriction, or a muscle pressing on them can make the nerve sensitive and cause numbness and tingling in the neck, shoulder, or down the arm.
The correct diagnosis of nerve compression is imperative to treat this condition as the treatment for the cause and source of this nerve compression varies greatly.
Cervical stenosis refers to a narrowing of the canal where the spinal cord resides.
Narrowing of the canal is often age-related and results when extra bone growth around the neck vertebrae narrows the canal. This narrowing can create compression on the cord or the nerves that exit the neck, creating symptoms similar to nerve compression.
Again, a correct diagnosis of this condition is imperative for an effective treatment plan and appropriate rehabilitation exercises to help reduce symptoms associated with cervical stenosis.
Common Symptoms of Neck Pain
Neck pain might reveal itself in the case of different symptoms, among which some are more common. We are going to discuss the most common symptoms of pain in the neck below:
Pain while Working with a Computer or Driving
This neck pain is related to repetitive overuse and physical strain. This type of neck pain has one of the best outcomes with therapy and home care incorporating stretches and rehab exercises.
Muscle Tightness and Spasms
The feeling of pressure, stiffness, tightness, and sometimes even spasms indicates that you may need to seek treatment for your neck pain.
Decreased Ability to Move the Head
Chronic neck stiffness and tightness can result in decreased mobility to the neck and loss of range of motion.
Acute neck pain often presents with more severe restricted mobility but tends to improve quickly with treatment.
Headaches, especially tension headaches, are among the most common symptoms of neck pain. Tight muscles, called the sub-occipital muscle group, are a big contributing factor to tension headaches and have a good prognosis with therapy.
The suboccipital muscles are a group of four muscles located in the posterior region of the neck, inferior to the occipital bone.
Sharp pain is more common in acute cases of neck pain. This pain can happen from trauma, sudden blows to the head, or waking up with a locked neck.
Sharp pain often indicates pinching of a structure, whether a nerve, joint capsule, or ligament.
When other red flags are ruled out, muscular causes of the sharp pain can be treated with manual therapy and appropriate stretching.
Radicular refers to pain from the nerve root. Nerve roots are where the nerves originate from the spinal cord.
If there is a compression at this level (very close to the spine), it can result in symptoms of numbness and, tingling and weakness in the arms.
This condition is more serious and less common than everyday stiffness. However, it still can be treated conservatively through chiropractic, physiotherapy, and massage therapy. The best treatment outcome is a multidisciplinary approach.
How Neck Pain is Diagnosed?
The neck area is one of the most common regions of the body to present with pain. Neck pain can have various underlying factors and causes.
The most common causes are related to muscles, joints, and ligaments. However, other more serious causes may also present as neck pain.
If you are experiencing neck pain, it is important to consult a qualified healthcare practitioner for a thorough evaluation and proper diagnosis for an appropriate treatment.
Diagnosing neck pain involves a comprehensive process to find the underlying causes and tailor an effective treatment specific to your condition.
A medical history is a thorough list of questions regarding the neck pain. It may involve questions such as the onset of pain, location, frequency, and intensity.
Furthermore, a medical history also involves questions about the individual’s medical background, such as previous medical conditions, medications, trauma hospitalizations, and more.
Your qualified healthcare professional must obtain a thorough medical history during the initial visit to ensure they can arrive at the most accurate diagnosis for your neck pain.
A physical examination is conducted after the medical history is obtained. Physical examination consists of various tests involving active and passive range of motion, strength testing, neurological testing, observation of posture and form, and relevant orthopedic testing.
In some instances, the medical history and physical examination may warrant obtaining further imaging tests to rule out or rule out certain medical conditions.
If this is the case, your doctor will order the appropriate tests. Some common medical imaging tests include:
X-rays are a common choice for initial imaging tests as they are quick, accessible, and allow us to visualize the bony structures and some soft tissue structures.
X-rays help diagnose fractures, degenerative changes of the bones, and arthritis.
A CT scan uses X-ray technology and computer processing to create a 3D image of the visualized area.
These images offer intricate views of various bodily components, including bones, joints, muscles, and organs, providing more detail than a conventional X-ray.
MRI relies on powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to generate highly detailed images of the body’s internal structures.
It is frequently the preferred choice for imaging of the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, and soft tissues and can help identify conditions such as herniated discs and nerve compression.
Additional examinations like blood tests might be recommended to investigate potential underlying medical conditions such as infections or autoimmune disorders. They may be prescribed solely or in conjunction with imaging tests.
Although most neck pains respond favorably to conservative care and non-invasive procedures, a small number of cases may require further testing.
If your neck pain is not responding to the initial treatments or is more complex than originally anticipated, you may be referred to a specialist.
A specialist, such as an orthopedic surgeon or a neurologist, will further evaluate your condition. They may order further tests or recommend surgery if warranted.
Neck Pain Treatments
The intensity of neck pain can vary. It can range from acute pain with significant loss of mobility or it can present as a mild ache over some time.
While neck pain is commonly experienced, it’s important not to overlook it as a minor inconvenience.
This discomfort can actually signal potential problems related to the muscles, joints, nerves, or structural components of the neck area, which, if left untreated, can result in the worsening of the issue that affects not only your physical well-being but also your overall quality of life.
Some treatment options for neck pain include:
Manual therapy is a very popular hands-on approach that encompasses a wide range of techniques. Manual therapy treatments mean therapy involves the practitioner using their hands to feel the area and also to treat it accordingly using their hands and palpation skills.
Practitioners that commonly use manual therapy techniques are chiropractors, massage therapists and some physiotherapists.
Manual therapy treatments will target the joints, the muscles, the ligaments and even the nerves, although the techniques to treat each region may vary significantly.
The joints are an important part of the neck as there are 7 vertebrae in the neck, and each level is comprised of different types of smaller joints to allow for intricate movements of our head and neck.
Therefore, joint mobilizations are an extremely effective method to improve neck mobility and range of motion. This technique involves skilled passive movements on the neck’s joints to boost their mechanics, increase how far they can move, and decrease the pain.
Soft Tissue Mobilization
Soft tissue techniques focus on the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia around the neck.
These techniques require therapists to use their hands to apply pressure, knead, or gently stretch these tissues to relieve muscle tension, break up stubborn areas of high tone, and improve blood circulation to the tight muscles.
Muscle Energy Techniques
These methods require active participation from the patient, as they engage in specific muscle contractions against resistance provided by the therapist.
This approach aims to enhance joint mobility, reset muscle tension, and improve proprioception, which is the body’s sense of its position in space. After this technique, patients often experienced reduced pain and improved mobility.
Trigger Point Therapy
Trigger points are specific spots in the muscles that become tense and sensitive.
To ease the pain related to these trigger points, therapists employ pressure or techniques such as ischemic compression to the area to promote an increased flow of blood and oxygenation to the affected area.
Spinal Manipulation (High-Velocity, Low-Amplitude Thrust)
This method is commonly performed by chiropractors. It consists of a quick and carefully directed force applied to specific vertebrae that is misaligned.
The objective is to realign the joints to enhance their mobility and blood flow. Patients can often experience immediate relief after this technique.
Deep Tissue Massage
This massage approach concentrates on the deeper muscle layers and fascia, with the goal of releasing tight muscle knots and reducing tension in the neck and its surrounding regions.
Manual traction involves a gentle pull being applied to the head or neck to generate a decompressive effect on the spinal joints. This action can effectively relieve nerve pressure and diminish discomfort.
Acupuncture has been shown to be extremely effective in the treatment of neck pain and headaches. The technique involves fine needles that are strategically inserted into distinct points on the body to stimulate healing, relieve pain, and enhance overall well-being.
Licensed acupuncturists, as well as medical doctors, physiotherapists and chiropractors with the appropriate training and licensing, can perform acupuncture on a patient depending on their licensing jurisdiction.
Non-prescription pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen are useful for pain management and inflammation reduction. In instances of more intense pain, stronger pain medication may be recommended.
Although even more serious conditions such as disc herniations and spinal stenosis respond favourably to conservative care, there are some instances where the condition has progressed far, and surgical options may be considered.
In cases of severe pain, surgical options may be a good choice for some as they can help drastically improve the quality of life of an individual suffering from chronic daily pain that can be debilitating.
Multiple different types of injections can be used to relieve neck pain. The specific type used depends on your unique situation and the underlying cause of your neck pain.
The use of injections is usually implemented when the patient is demonstrating a slower-than-anticipated response to conservative care or is not responding favourably to manual therapy and exercise therapies.
Common injections used to treat neck pain in modern medicine are:
Nerve Block Injections
Nerve blocks involve the administration of anaesthetics or other medications around nerves responsible for transmitting pain signals.
Cervical nerve blocks are specifically aimed at nerves within the neck region to locate the region of pain and or provide temporary pain relief.
Corticosteroid Injections (Epidural Steroid Injections)
These injections involve the administration of a mixture composed of a corticosteroid (an anti-inflammatory medication) and a local anaesthetic into the epidural space surrounding the spinal cord.
They serve the purpose of reducing inflammation and alleviating pain resulting from conditions such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or nerve irritation known as radiculopathy.
An epidural corticosteroid (steroid) injection is a way to deliver pain medicine quickly into the body with a syringe. The medicine is injected into the epidural area. This is a fat-filled area that covers the spinal cord to protect it and the surrounding nerves from damage.
Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA)
Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) is a medical procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to produce heat, aiming to specifically interfere with and interrupt the nerve pathways responsible for conveying pain signals.
This technique is particularly effective in offering extended periods of pain relief, notably for conditions like facet joint pain.
TENS, which stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, is a method of pain management that doesn’t involve invasive procedures or medications.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) uses low-voltage electrical currents to relieve pain. A TENS unit is a small device that delivers the current at or near your nerves to block or change your perception of pain.
This technique utilizes a compact device powered by batteries to send mild electrical currents across the skin through electrode pads. By doing so, TENS modifies the manner in which pain signals travel and are interpreted by the nervous system.
It’s frequently employed as both a form of physical therapy and a means of alleviating pain. This approach is adaptable to different body areas, including the neck.
How to Prevent Neck Pain?
Neck pain can arise from various factors such as injuries, aging, poor posture, nerve compression, and more.
It’s important not to overlook neck pain as neck pain can often get worse over time or may indicate a more serious problem.
If you are experiencing neck pain symptoms, such as headache or decreased range of motion, contact a qualified healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation and assessment of your condition.
After you receive a proper diagnosis, a tailored neck pain treatment plan can be established, and an appropriate course of care can be recommended.
Treatments may involve consultations with specialists like chiropractors, physiotherapists, or massage therapists.