Neck pain is a common condition frequently caused by muscle spasms or strains, poor spinal alignment, or a neck injury. Affecting nearly 30% of Americans, neck pain can range from mild tenderness and a dull ache to a stiff neck and severe pain. Mild neck pain is typically managed at home with rest, physical therapy, massage therapy, and over-the-counter medicines, like ibuprofen. Most cases of neck pain resolve on their own in a few days, but you should speak with an orthopedic doctor at Raleigh Orthopaedic if you have severe pain, chronic discomfort or pain that limits your daily activities.
Unfortunately, neck pain is not always centralized in the neck. It can radiate across your entire upper body, affecting your shoulders, arms, chest and head. In addition to neck pain, you may notice additional symptoms, such as:
- Headaches: often materialize in the occipital region (back of the scalp) or extend to the top of the head, forming “tension” headaches
- Paresthesia: tingling or numbness that moves from your neck down your shoulder and arm. Often the result of nerve compression in the spine, or as nerves pass through inflamed muscles.
- Neck Stiffness: tightness in the muscles along the back of the head can result in a “muscle knot” in the neck. Pain and tension may spread to your upper back, shoulders, and arms
- Reduced Neck Mobility: an inability to easily turn or rotate your head and neck
Common Causes of Neck Pain
Neck pain is most common in people over the age of 50, although all demographics deal with some degree of neck discomfort during their lifetime. Pain can either be acute (lasting less than six weeks), subacute (lasting approximately 12 weeks), or chronic (lasting more than 12 weeks). Beyond good old aging, the causes of neck pain are as varied as the list is long. So with that, let’s take a look at 6 reasons for why you might be experiencing neck pain.
- Strain or Tension: A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Usually, strain is the result of everyday activities such sedentary work, twisting the neck during movement, poor posture, tech neck, high levels of stress, or even sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
- Cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerve): A “pinched nerve” is a compressed nerve. Nerves in the spine can be compressed by surrounding tissues, resulting in pain, tingling, or numbness. A pinched nerve in the cervical spine may lead to neck stiffness and pain, but will typically resolve itself with home treatments within four to six weeks.
- Herniated discs: Vertebrae, stretching from the base of the skull to the tailbone, are cushioned by shock-absorbing discs. Intervertebral discs provide a buffer, allowing you to bend a move properly. If a disc tears or leaks, often from injury or overexertion, it is considered a herniated disc. People with herniated cervical discs commonly report pain in the back of the neck and along the side of the neck.
- Degenerative disc disease: Vertebral discs are composed of a tough but flexible outer layer of cartilage strands, called annulus fibrosus, which contain a gel that gives the discs shock absorption properties. These discs lose hydration over time, losing cushioning capabilities and becoming prone to tears and cracks. When the dehydration or desiccation of the cervical disc material occurs at an accelerated rate, it is known as cervical disc degeneration. Neck pain resulting from degeneration is prevalent when moving the head up or down. Reduced or stifled movement, headaches, and tingling are common side effects.
- Cervical osteoarthritis: Occurs when the protective cartilage breaks down and no longer allows for smooth movement between bones, eventually resulting in swollen and painful facet joints in the cervical spine.
- Impingement: Chronic neck pain may be caused by shoulder impingement, which can be identified by physical and radiographic signs.
Treating Minor Neck Pain at Home
By changing certain habits and adapting a neck care routine, you may be able to relieve minor neck pain from the comfort of your own home.
Simple posture improvements are an excellent place to start. Be sure to keep your shoulders back and chin level with the ground, carry heavy objects close to your body, and avoid using shoulder bags that impact weight distribution across the neck and shoulder region.
For pain, you may also try taking the appropriate dosage of over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and pain medicines such as Advil or Tylenol; consult with your doctor if you are unsure of which option or dosage is right for you.
Try heat or cold therapy. The general recommendation is to use ice for the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury, which will help reduce swelling. Then, use heat to loosen muscles and improve stiffness.
Physical therapy is another great tool for treating a preventing the recurrence of neck pain. Range of motion exercises, slowly moving your head side to side or up and down, can gently stretch the neck muscles and prevent stiffness.
Massage therapy may also be helpful as massage can stretch tightened areas of the fascia, a seamless tissue layer connecting muscles, bones, and organs, and move fluids to reduce swelling, increase circulation and improve movement.
A good sleeping position is imperative in order to maintain proper alignment of the neck and spine. When dealing with neck discomfort, the best positions for sleep are on your back or side. Sleeping on your back helps maintain the spine’s natural curves. Using a memory foam pillow can help support your neck, keeping your head only slightly raised – avoid overly highly pillows that will cause you to bend or tuck your neck. You may also try putting a pillow between your knees to keep your lower spine in alignment. Maintaining neck alignment can prevent excess weight from being put on the neck, reducing overall strain on the muscles.
It may be time to see a doctor if you have exhausted conservative, at-home treatments for pain or if you experience any tingling or numbness of the arms or hands. After performing an exam and reviewing your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe additional medications, recommend a visit to physical therapy, or refer to you to a specialist if they suspect nerve or disc damage.
SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT
If you are experiencing acute or chronic neck pain, it may be time to see one of our orthopedic specialists. Click here or call us at (919) 781-5600 to schedule an appointment. If your injury or condition is recent, you can walk right into one of our Raleigh Orthopaedic Urgent Care locations for immediate care. For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is needed to see one of our physical therapists.
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The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.