Perhaps your car accident left you with debilitating neck pain. Or maybe you were looking both ways before crossing an intersection only to have your neck suddenly seize up in painful spasms. Or perhaps you are like millions of Americans who wake up every morning with pain and stiffness in their neck.
You never know how important your neck is to your overall health and well-being until you are suddenly in pain every time you move your head. When it is healthy, the intricate network of bones, nerves, muscles, and tendons that make up your neck work in harmony to help you perform hundreds of daily tasks. If the smallest nerve is inflamed, the bones are out of alignment, the muscles are in spasm, or the ligaments and tendons are strained or sprained, even the smallest movement can cause excruciating pain. What causes this pain? How do you treat it? And most importantly, how do you know if it is something more serious than just a crick in your neck?
Download our Comprehensive Guide to Neck Pain and Headaches in an Ebook
Take a PDF version of this article “to go” and read it at your convenience.
Before we can talk about neck pain, it is important to know about the bones, cartilage and soft tissue that make up the neck. It is hard to believe that your neck only has seven small bones inside. These bones, known as cervical vertebrae, start in the base of your skull and continue until the thoracic spine begins, around your shoulders. The first two bones of the cervical spine are vital to your head’s movement. Named the atlas (for its role in holding up the head) and the axis (for its role in turning your head from side to side), half of your neck’s flexion happens between the base of your skull and C1 and half of the rotation of your neck happens between C1 and C2.
Your neck is also made up of a series of muscles, tendons and ligaments that hold the whole structure together. Each of these muscles attaches to the head, shoulders, chest, or jaw to help you move your head any way you choose. The muscles in the neck also aid in many of the body’s most basic functions such as chewing, swallowing, talking, and breathing. For instance, your esophagus is a muscular tube that connects your throat to your stomach. It sits behind your windpipe or trachea and in front of your spine. While it is not under your voluntary control, its function is vital to eating.
Your neck also houses some of the most important cartilage in your body. Your trachea is comprised of about 20 rings of cartilage connected by strong muscles. This tube divides into two sub-tubes, one for each lung where oxygen can travel in and carbon dioxide can travel out. Your thyroid cartilage that forms an Adam’s apple in your neck houses your vocal cords which are essential to speech.
As if that was not complicated enough, your neck is also home to some of the most important nerves in the body. The cervical vertebrae not only house the brain’s connection with the spinal cord, they also house nerves that control organ function and sensation in the rest of the body. If any of these cervical nerves are severed or compromised, it is possible to experience paralysis, paresis (or weakness) or even death.
Neck Pain Causes
Since neck anatomy is so complex, it is not surprising that there are so many causes of neck pain. Nerve inflammation, poor alignment of the cervical vertebrae, muscle spasms, and trauma can all cause pain and stiffness in the neck. Even some of our habits can lead to neck pain. Some of these are: Since neck anatomy is so complex, it is not surprising that there are so many causes of neck pain. Nerve inflammation, poor alignment of the cervical vertebrae, muscle spasms, and trauma can all cause pain and stiffness in the neck. Even some of our habits can lead to neck pain. Some of these are:
- Carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder
- Cradling a phone between your neck and shoulder
- Tension headaches
- Poor posture
- Bending over a keyboard or computer monitor
- Poor sleep habits (sleeping on your stomach, sleeping with too many or too few pillows or sleeping on an old mattress) There are, however, more complicated medical conditions that can causeor contribute to neck pain.
- Cervical dystonia, also known as spasmodic torticollis, is a neurological disorder that affects the muscles in the neck. As a result, the neck involuntarily turns to one side causing pain.
- Cervical spondylosis is another term for age-related wear and tear on the intervertebral discs that cushion the bones in the neck. As these discs shrink, osteoarthritis sets in causing painful bone spurson the bones in the neck.
- Fibromyalgia is not a disease but rather a descriptive term for several symptoms. The chiefest of which is a generalized pain in the body.
- Herniated discs happen when the tough fluid-filled discs that cushion the bones in the spine rupture from pressure or injury. The herniation causes pressure on the nerves in the neck which, in turn, cause pain.
- Meningitis, or inflammation of the fluid and membranes in your brain and spinal cord, is a dangerous medical condition that happens when certain bacteria grow out of control in this fluid. In addition to a highfever, one of the tell-tale signs of meningitis is pain in the neck and head. (More on that later.)
- Osteoarthritis can happen in any joint in the body. While we most often think of arthritis affecting joints such as the knees or hips, osteoarthritis can also affect the bones in the neck, especially with age.
- Rheumatoid arthritis, or chronic inflammation of the joints, can also cause pain in the joints between the bones in the cervical spine. This inflammation can then cause pain in the neck
Is Neck Pain Dangerous?
Your neck holds up your head day in and day out from the time you are an infant until you take your last breath. While persistent in doing its job, it is also prone to injury, aches and pains. Most of the time, neck pain is bothersome, but not dangerous to your overall health. However, if neck pain is accompanied by a severe headache, vomiting, high fever, or difficulty concentrating, it is possible you have meningitis.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord, also known as the meninges. When these membranes begin to swell, they usually trigger severe headaches and neck pain. Meningitis is usually divided into several different categories.
Viral meningitis usually occurs in conjunction with another illness. For instance, someone might get the flu (influenza) and develop meningitis as a complication. It is possible to contract the underlying illness, but viral meningitis is not contagious and most people get better on their own. Children under five and those with a weakened immune system are more likely to develop this complication than normally healthy people. Typically, someone with viral meningitis has a high fever, stiff neck, headaches, a sensitivity to light, nausea or vomiting, or a lack of energy.
Bacterial meningitis is highly contagious and typically dangerous to a person’s life and health. An infection, fueled by bacteria causes inflammation in the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include a sudden high fever, stiff neck, severe headache that seems odd or different than a typical headache, confusion, nausea or vomiting, sensitivity to light, and sometimes a skin rash. Some strains of bacterial meningitis are highly contagious, spread from person to person through casual contact, while others can be contracted through bacteria in certain foods we eat. Since bacterial meningitis is so often deadly, several vaccines in recent years have reduced the likelihood of contracting the disease. However, it is always a good idea to be seen by a doctor if your head and neck pain are accompanied by a fever, nausea or vomiting.
Diagnosing Neck Pain
The process of diagnosing the cause of neck pain is fairly straightforward and relies heavily on you. First, your healthcare provider will want to know if you have been in an accident, played sports recently, been exposed to any illnesses, or had a traumatic event that resulted in your neck pain. This will determine the number and types of diagnostic tests that will need to be performed in order to determine the underlying cause of your neck pain. Next, your health care provider will decide the types of imaging tests that need to be done. At the very least, you will likely have an x-ray to rule out fractures, osteoarthritis, or other conditions of the bones that may be contributing to your pain. In some cases, your health care provider will order an MRI or diagnostic ultrasound to examine the soft tissues in your neck. If you have neck pain with a high fever, nausea, vomiting, or confusion, your doctor may order a spinal tap to rule out bacterial meningitis.
Neck Pain Treatment
Once the source of your neck pain is discovered, it is time to begin addressing it with a treatment plan. While it is possible to have neck pain as a symptom of a more serious underlying illness, most of the time neck pain is just that – a pain in the neck. Fortunately, treating it does not have to be.
Most people associate chiropractic care with three things – headaches, neck pain and back pain. For good reason. Studies have continuously shown what chiropractors have known all along, that gentle manipulation of the spine can ease neck pain, increase spine health, reduce degenerative disc disease, and ease the painful symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. In fact, one study published in 2007 in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found evidence that patients with chronic neck pain had significant improvements after chiropractic adjustments. By aligning the bones in the spine, nerve signals can flow freely from the brain to the body and back to the brain. Proper alignment of the bones in the neck can also help neck muscles move the way they should, thereby reducing pain and stiffness.
We often think of a massage as something relaxing that helps us feel better when we are stressed. However, certain massage therapy techniques can also relieve neck pain, extend the life of a chiropractic adjustment, and help improve mobility in the neck. Trigger point therapy, as well as myofascial release techniques, are especially helpful when you are experiencing neck pain.
Anytime a person hears the word “herniated disc” their mind jumps to a surgical repair. However, surgery on spinal discs is riddled with risks of further injury, especially when it comes to cervical discs. Fortunately, spinal decompression provides an alternative to surgery for helping the body heal from herniated discs in the neck. Patients lay down on specialized beds where their head and neck are connected to a computer. The computer calculates the amount of decompression the body needs and gently lengthens the space in between the cervical vertebrae. This greater space allows the discs to return to their proper position so the body can begin the healing process.
While most people think of exercise as hopping on the bike or going for a run, targeted exercises are designed to strengthen a particular part of the body, increase flexibility and mobility and improve range of motion. When it comes to neck pain, targeted exercises may include stretches, exercises to improve posture and core strength, and techniques to improve flexibility in your neck muscles. Many times, targeted exercise is a part of an overall rehabilitation program created by a chiropractor or physical therapist
One of the most popular ways we treat neck pain at home is through the use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or analgesic medications. While a few doses can help get us moving after an injury, using these medications repeatedly over the course of several days or weeks can lead to stomach problems. Many people resort to prescription strength anti-inflammatory medication to help with their neck pain, but these often come with significant side effects. Others rely on prescription opioid medications to control their pain levels. In every case, medication serves only to mask the symptom. It does not help address the underlying cause of a person’s neck pain or stiffness.
When neck pain is acute and severe and no other reason for the pain can be found, doctors will inject numbing medication, called lidocaine, directly into the neck to immediately reduce pain. This treatment is meant to be a temporary fix to allow someone in severe pain to begin a rehabilitation program that may include physical therapy or chiropractic care.
Neck Pain Home Remedies
There are several home remedies that can offer immediate relief while you are waiting for your first appointment with your health care provider or as you are progressing through your treatment plan.
Alternating between ice and heat is a great way to naturally relieve neck pain without worrying about further injuring your body or compromising your health. Spending just 15 minutes with an ice pack can naturally reduce inflammation and decrease pain. Spending the same amount of time with a heated pad can relax muscles that are in spasm, increase flexibility and improve range of motion. However, applying ice packs directly to the body can damage the skin. Always wrap the ice pack in a cloth or towel before using.
Topical creams, gels or sprays are all designed to ease muscle soreness or stiffness with active ingredients such as menthol, evergreen oil or camphor. Some creams even rely on capsaicin, the ingredient in chili peppers that give them their heat, for a warming sensation that ultimately provides pain relief. Topical analgesics are available over-the-counter in most drugstores and should always be used according to the directions on the package.
Over-the-Counter Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Taking an over-the-counter NSAID, such as naproxen or ibuprofen, is a common way to treat neck pain. While these medications offer temporary relief, they do not address any underlying conditions that may be causing your neck pain. If you choose to take an NSAID, consult your doctor first to prevent side effects or unwanted interactions with other medications you may be taking
While it may be difficult to make time for a professional massage, it is possible to rub out a few “kinks” on your own. Use your fingertips to apply light pressure to areas of your neck that feel sore or stiff. As you do, turn your head from one side to another to help relax the muscle where you are applying pressure. This self-massage technique is especially effective if done frequently throughout the day when you notice tension, pain or stiffness creeping in.
Hot Shower or Bath
There are few things more relaxing than a long, hot shower or bath after a hard day. If you are experiencing neck pain, a hot shower or bath can soothe sore muscles and ease tension.
Neck Pain Exercises
Whether you sit at a desk all day or have a job where you are required to use your body, taking time to perform these exercises can improve your posture, relieve neck pain and help improve the range of motion in your neck. Try doing them all first thing in the morning or before bed or pick one to perform every time you take a break from work.
Seated Neck Release
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place one hand beside you and the other over your head an on your opposite ear. Gently pull your head toward your bent arm until you feel your neck begin to stretch. Hold there for 30 seconds and release the stretch. Switch sides.
The Upright “Crunch”
While this is not an ab workout, it mimics the hand and head position many people adopt when they are doing crunches. Clasp both hands behind your head with your elbows wide. Gently bring your elbows together as you lower your chin to your chest. Use your hands to deepen the stretch as you hold it for 30 seconds. Slowly release the stretch and bring your elbows apart. Relax here for 30 seconds and then repeat the stretch.
When you think of soldiers, you typically think of them standing at attention. In reality, most of the time they stand in a position called “parade rest” or “at ease”. At this point, service members stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, with one hand on top of the other, palms up, resting on their buttocks. It is in this position that you are ready for a stretch in the back of your neck. Gently grasp your left wrist with your right hand and pull gently as you move your right ear toward your right shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds, deepening the stretch by pulling down slightly on your left wrist or moving your ear closer to your shoulder. Slowly release the stretch and grasp your right wrist with your left hand, pulling your arm down slightly as you move your left ear toward your left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and release.
When Should I See a Doctor for Neck Pain?
One of the biggest mysteries about neck pain is knowing when it is time to see a doctor. You should visit with your physician if your neck pain:
- Is accompanied by a fever, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, or seizures
- Seems to be getting worse instead of better
- Does not start to improve in six weeks
- Is accompanied by unexplained weight loss
- Comes with numbness, tingling or loss of strength in other parts of the body
- Happens with dizziness
That is not to say that you are forced to wait for neck pain to go away on its own before seeing a health care provider. Chiropractic care has been clinically shown to improve neck pain without the use of opioid medications or invasive surgical interventions. You should see a physician immediately if you show signs of meningitis. Otherwise, you should call a trusted chiropractor as soon as you want to begin feeling better. For more information on neck pain or whether chiropractic care is right for you, call Sandstone Chiropractic today for a free consultation.