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Neck Pain

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Young handsome man in blue tshirt, touching his neck possibly due to neck pain.

Neck pain is unfortunately an all too familiar experience for many of us. The bones, muscles and ligaments of the neck are responsible for supporting and stabilizing the head while we stand, walk and run among other things. Given the fact that the head is probably the heaviest part of the body, this is no simple task.

In addition to the weight it is required to support, the cervical portion of the spine lies at the back of the neck. Like the rest of the spine, this portion is made up of vertebrae stacked one above another. Cervical discs lie between each pair of vertebrae and are responsible for absorbing shocks between them as we move.

As a result of this setup, neck and shoulder pain can arise from several different causes. These include muscle strains, injury, illness and damage to the vertebrae or discs that make up the cervical portion of the spinal column.

In this article, we will briefly list the main causes of neck pain and then discuss the main treatments for it. We emphasize that this list is meant to cover only the main causes and is not exhaustive.

Causes Of Neck Pain

Muscle Strains

Muscle strains generally result in acute neck pain. They are typically the result of poor postural habits. These habits may include slouching forward with the shoulders while sitting at a desk, or sitting in the same position for too long.

Sleeping in a position that causes too much strain on the neck muscles can also cause this type of pain. For example, if you sleep on a pillow that is too thick, this can cause excessive neck bending during sleep and neck pain can result.

Injuries

Many cases of neck pain are due to whiplash injuries. These injuries occur when the head is jerked violently backwards and then forwards. They are a common injury suffered by car occupants in road accidents.

Neck injuries and pain can also occur during sports if the neck is forced to move outside its normal range. This can result in soft tissue damage like sprains or strains.

Fractures of the cervical vertebrae can also cause neck pain

Heart Attack

In certain cases, neck pain can be a sign of a heart attack. However, when this happens, there are typically other symptoms including shortness of breath, sweating, vomiting and pain in other areas like the jaw or arm.

A heart attack is an extremely serious and life threatening event. If you feel that your neck pain may be due to one, call 911 immediately or get someone to take you to the nearest hospital.

Meningitis

Meningitis is inflammation of the protective tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. With it, there are typically other symptoms present with neck pain such as fever, headache and a stiff neck.

Meningitis is, like a heart attack, an extremely serious medical condition. Individuals who suspect it to be the cause of their neck pain should seek medical help urgently.

Arthritis

Neck pain can also be caused by arthritis. The main types that affect the neck are osteoarthritis ( caused by wear and tear of the neck vertebrae) and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis can also lead to the development of bone spurs in the long term. These can press on the nerve roots adjacent adjacent to the spine and cause pain similar to that from spinal stenosis or a herniated disc.

As with other parts of the body, neck arthritis typically causes neck stiffness and lost range of motion in addition to the pain.

Compressed Nerve Roots

This is a typical cause of chronic neck pain. The nerve roots adjacent to the cervical spine may be compressed as a result of degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis. The resulting neck pain can sometimes radiate into the arms or hands.

Other Causes

Other possible causes of neck pain that we will not cover in this article include abscesses, infections, malignant tumours and spinal cancer.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of the cause of your neck pain will likely be done based on your medical history and a physical exam by your doctor.

Your doctor may also request imaging studies of the painful areas using X-rays, CT-scans and MRI scans. Fluid analyses such as blood tests and a spinal tap may also be carried out.

Treatment Of Neck Pain

Treatment of neck pain may include conservative methods performed at home or treatments in a doctor’s office or hospital.

Treatments At Home

These  will mainly be employed to treat neck muscle strains or other soft tissue injuries, and may include:

  • Temporarily abstaining for vigorous physical activity that may stress neck soft tissues;
  • Application of ice packs (cold compress)  for a few days to ease pain and any swelling. After this, you can switch to heat therapy to improve blood flow to the injured area;
  • Pain relief medication such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol);
  • Physical therapy exercises to stretch and strengthen neck muscles;
  • Working to improve posture while sitting, standing and even lying down. A posture brace such as the Mueller Adjustable Posture Corrector may be worn to prompt you to maintain good posture at all times;
  • Wearing a neck brace, although this should be done only subject to your doctor’s approval. Worn for too long, a neck brace may exacerbate the problem and lead to even more neck pain in the future..

Treatments In A Doctor’s Office Or Hospital

These may be necessary to treat problems like chronic neck pain due to illness, spinal problems or arthritis. They may include:

  • Hot and Cold Therapy;
  • Physical therapy exercises;
  • Prescription pain relief medication;
  • Muscle relaxants prescribed to treat severe and painful muscle strains;
  • Traction therapy;
  • Antibiotics prescribed to treat an infection;
  • Corticosteroid injections near the spine to treat inflammation of compressed nerve roots (due to spinal stenosis or a herniated disc);
  • Hospital treatments such as surgery for treatment of life threatening conditions such as cancer or a heart attack.

Some health care providers may also recommend alternative medicine treatments for neck pain such as acupuncture, massage therapy or TENS therapy.

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