Common Causes Of Neck Pain

In our latest article, we uncover the causes of neck pain and what you can do to prevent further pain. You can read our article about the common causes of back pain here. Firstly, it is important to know how your neck is structured:

How Your Neck is Structured

cervical regionThe neck, or cervical spine as it is commonly referred to in medical terms, is the upper region of the spine starting at the base of the skull. It is made up of 7 vertebrae that protect the spinal cord and allow movement and flexibility. It also consists of discs, ligaments and tendons. The vertebral disc is a shock absorbing structure that sits between each vertebrae acting as a cushion to stop the bones rubbing against one another, as well as absorbing pressure from movement and any knocks or bumps. The outer portion of the disc is made up of a strong material called annulus fibrosus, and inside this protective covering is a loose network of fibres suspended in a gel like substance known as mucoprotein gel. The vertebrae are held together by ligaments, tough tissue that connect bones to bones. Tendons, also made of tough tissue similar to ligaments, connect muscles to the vertebrae.

The cervical spine has the greatest range of movement compared to any other area of the spine. It also supports the weight of the head and allows the movement of the head. Because of the extended range of movement, the neck is subject to more wear and tear than the rest of the spinal column. Most types of neck pain are associated with the spinal column, such as trapped nerves or pressure upon the nerves, or muscular pain.

Causes

Poor Posture

This is one of the leading causes of neck pain as well as a variety of other back related problems. Poor workplace design and sitting in front of a computer for prolonged periods of time in an incorrect position can cause neck pain due to awkward neck posture, arm posture and twisting or bending the body. Nowadays, larger companies have regulations stipulating the correct height for the computer monitor, which should be at eye level. If the screen is too high or too low, you will have to bend your neck, causing tension and ultimately pain. A hunched back when walking or texting, cradling the phone between your face and shoulder, slouching and even minor things such as reading in bed, can all strain your neck.

Poor Form During Physical Exercises

Certain types of physical exercise can aggravate the neck, such as lifting weights incorrectly or doing situps without engaging your core muscles correctly, therefore over compensating with the neck, straining the muscles and pulling at the ligaments and tendons. There are of course other types of exercise and stretches that can relieve neck pain.

Stress and Anxiety

Psychosocial factors such as problems at home or at work may indicate increased risk for pain related complaints. The build up of muscular tension is a common side effect of stress and anxiety. Frequently felt around the neck and shoulders causing tender and painful muscles.

Injury to the neck

Usually caused by trauma or an accident, whiplash for example usually occurs as a result of a sudden movement or jerking of the head. It is commonly associated with road traffic accidents. A sudden impact can throw the head forward or backward in a vigorous movement. The weight of the head pulls and over stretches the neck, damaging the ligaments and tendons, causing a painful, tender neck that is very often stiff with reduced mobility. Headaches may also occur as a result of whiplash.

Sleeping in a Poor Position

This can cause ongoing neck pain and stiffness and in some cases Acute Torticollis. Gritting your teeth while you sleep can also cause tension in your neck.

Acute Torticollis

Torticollis is a twisted neck. Acute torticollis usually occurs as a result of an injury to the neck muscles often from sleeping in a poor position. A person may wake up in the morning to find their neck, twisted and stuck in one position. They may have difficulty moving their neck at all. This usually only lasts for 24 to 48 hours. Other causes include general poor posture, or carrying a heavy unbalanced load. For example, a heavy bag on one shoulder or lifting a heavy bag with one arm.

Cervical Spondylosis

Spondylosis is a general term for the degeneration of the spine as an individual ages. Cervical Spondylosis is a degenerative condition in the cervical region of the spine, that affects the vertebrae and soft tissues. Everyday activities cause wear to our joints, there is a constant wear and repair cycle happening in our bodies, however, as we age, this repair cycle slows down and the joints and tissues of the spine become more worn. Cartilage around the spinal joints that keeps the bones from grinding against each other wears away leaving the bones more vulnerable to damage without their protective layer. The gel like substance in the discs can become drier causing them to shrink, so there is less padding between the vertebrae. As the discs dry out, they become more fragile and susceptible to cracking. This can lead to disc herniation and the development of degenerative disc disease. Other soft tissue such as tendons and ligaments can lose elasticity and moisture causing them to stiffen. All of the above mentioned can cause neck pain ranging from mild to severe in some individuals, whereas in others there will be no symptoms at all.

Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical Radiculopathy describes pain and neurological symptoms that result from any type of condition that irritates a nerve in the cervical spine as it branches away from the spinal cord. Degenerative Disc disease or a herniated disc can pinch the nerve causing Cervical Radiculopathy. Less common causes are fractures or tumors. There are different types of Cervical Radiculopathy depending on the nerve affected and its location, symptoms will vary too. Types of pain can range from severe pains, to pins and needles, numbness or tingling sensations down the arms. Certain neck movements may increase the pain considerably.

Cervical Stenosis

This refers to the narrowing of the space for the spinal cord or nerve branches in the cervical spine, this can lead to the compression of the spinal cord resulting in the coordination of extremities becoming compromised. It typically progresses as a person ages, and is more often than not due to degenerative changes in the spine as a result of wear and tear.

Cervical Myelopathy

A more serious condition referring to a loss of function in upper and lower extremities, secondary to compression of the spinal cord within the neck, it occurs when severe Cervical Stenosis causes the narrowing of the spinal canal and compresses the spinal cord. This interferes with the messages and signals sent between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms can include a loss of coordination, clumsiness in the patient's hands, tasks such as buttoning and unbuttoning a shirt may become difficult. A general unsteadiness may develop and the patient may experience weakness in their arms and legs. Walking can become difficult. This condition requires urgent medical attention.

Other Red Flags

Red flags are features of neck pain that may denote other more serious underlying conditions such as cancer, infection, a compromised immune system, severe trauma or skeletal injury that require urgent medical attention. Symptoms may include severe pain in the neck region accompanied with any of the following:

  • High fever/chills/sweats/shakes
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Lack of coordination
  • Difficulty walking
  • Nausea and vomiting

Prevention of neck pain

neck painYou can help reduce the chance of neck pain with a few simple preventative measures:

  • Always maintain good posture both at home and at work
  • Avoid sleeping on your front
  • Make sure your head is in line with your body if you sleep on your side
  • Don't use a pillow that is either too high or too firm, one pillow only is ideal
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle with healthy eating habits and regular exercise to retain flexibility
  • Use relaxation techniques

Treatments

Self care remedies include:

  • Removing the source of irritation e.g. correcting poor posture etc...
  • Using over the counter medication such as analgesics or anti inflammatories
  • Manipulation by a physiotherapist

If the above fails, it is advisable to consult a doctor or a pain management clinic. Dr. Miller can help you overcome your neck pain.

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