What causes neck pain?

Most people will have a minor neck problem at one time or another. Our body movements usually do not cause problems, but it’s not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or injury. Neck problems and injuries most commonly occur during sports and recreational activities, work-related tasks, or projects around the home.

Most neck injuries are the result of daily activities that strain the neck in ways that it’s not used to.  Some examples of those activities are: Sleeping or sitting with your body slouched and/or your neck twisted, sitting at a computer for a long time, painting a ceiling, sleeping on a pillow that’s too high or too flat, holding your head in an odd position while reading, watching TV, and so on. These types of activities can lead to neck strain, which is caused by a spasm of the neck muscles or swelling of the neck joints.

Minor neck pain is also caused by work injuries such as tripping, falling a short distance or excessive twisting of the spine, work or exercise that uses your arms and upper body, or stress. Severe neck injuries may result from trauma suffered in an auto accident in which you suffered whiplash, direct blows to the top or back of the head, sports-related accidents, or external pressure applied to the neck. Medical problems such as an infection in the neck, narrowing of the spinal canal (cervical spinal stenosis), and rheumatoid arthritis may also cause neck pain.

Neck pain can occur not only in your neck but anywhere in the area of your neck, from the base of your skull into your shoulders, and can spread down your arms or upper back.

A neck injury can bring on sudden and severe pain and cause bruising and swelling to develop soon after. If the ligaments or muscles in the neck are injured the spine may be fractured or dislocated, causing a spinal cord injury that may lead to permanent paralysis. Or it may tear or rupture a disc, causing herniation.

Symptoms of a spinal cord injury include tingling, numbness, loss of feeling or movement, difficulty controlling the muscles of the arms or legs, and loss of bladder and bowel control. Persons exhibiting these symptoms should receive emergency care immediately.

What are the symptoms?

Commonly you may feel a severe pain in your neck that prevents you from moving or turning your head or neck easily. The pain may spread to your shoulders, upper back, or arms, and if there is pressure on a spinal nerve the pain might shoot down your arm. This may be accompanied by weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arm. Headaches, dizziness, and feeling sick to your stomach may accompany a more serious neck injury as well.

Neck pain is almost as common as lower back pain, especially in people older than 50, but, like lower back pain, it should be promptly diagnosed, treated, and not ignored.

How is neck pain diagnosed?

Dr. Alex will ask questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam. He may also ask about any injuries, illnesses, or activities that may be causing your neck pain and, depending on your answers, may do an X-ray. During the physical exam, Dr. Alex will check how well you can move your neck. He will also look for tenderness or numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or hands.

How is it treated?

The type of treatment you need will depend on whether your neck pain is caused by commonplace activities, an injury, or another medical condition. If you’ve tried treatments such as anti-inflammatory medicine, ice packs, physical therapy, exercise, or changing how you sit or sleep for reducing or eliminating your neck pain and these treatments have not alleviated your pain, Dr. Alex may perform alternative treatments. These treatments could include acupuncture, gentle manipulation, ultrasound, electrical stimulationmassage, or any combination therein – whichever he believes are best suited to reduce or eliminate your particular pain.

If your pain doesn’t improve after a specific number of treatments, Dr. Alex may refer you to have an MRI or a CT scan done to check the neck bones, spinal discs, spinal nerve roots, and spinal cord. These imaging tests could indicate if your pain is caused by pressure on the spinal nerve roots, a narrowing of the spinal canal or a tumor. And, although surgery is rarely performed to treat neck pain per se, the types of medical conditions described in the previous sentence might be an indication that surgery should be considered.