Acute neck pain and stiffness is very common, often caused by tense neck muscles from working on your computer and sleeping in the wrong position. Age, injury, and poor posture are frequent causes of neck pain. However, in many cases there is no clear cause. Neck pain is estimated to affect one in three people, women more often than men. About 30% of Americans have an episode of acute neck pain every year! The majority will improve with conservative measures and staying active. More than 90% of patients have no pain after eight weeks.
The cervical spine
The cervical spine is made of seven vertebrae, C1-C7, that are separated by spinal discs which absorb shock and cushion the vertebrae, neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
What are the types of neck pain?
The pain may be acute and leave within a week or two but can return if the cause such as poor posture reoccurs. When pain lasts longer than three months it is called chronic neck pain. Chronic neck pain increases with age.
Types of neck pain:
- Axial pain is pain in the cervical spine that spreads to the shoulders
- Radicular pain is shooting pain that radiates from the neck up the back of the head or down into an arm. It is caused by nerve irritation due to a herniated disc compressing the nerve or a narrowing of the canal. This pain may also affect your reflexes and muscle strength.
Most neck pain is not a symptom of a serious disorder unless it is the result of trauma like an auto accident or neck pain that is accompanied by headache, fever, nausea and vomiting, or signs of nerve problems like numbness and tingling in the arm and fingers.
What cause neck pain?
- Weak and overworked neck muscles
- Degeneration of the cervical spine due to aging and overuse, including bone spurs and osteoarthritis, herniated discs, and thickened spinal ligaments
- Narrowing of the spinal canal called cervical spinal stenosis that compresses the spinal cord. It causes radiating pain that shoots into the shoulder or arm, an unsteady gait when walking, muscle spasms, loss of coordination in arms, hands and fingers, loss of muscle tone, and clumsiness dropping or holding items.
- Inflammatory conditions of the spine
- Jaw problems
- Severe headaches
- Stress and poor sleep
How is the cause of neck pain diagnosed?
Your orthopedic specialist will review your medical history and ask about your symptoms and what causes them, how long you have been suffering with neck pain and whether physical or mental stress is involved. They will conduct a physical exam to test reflexes and muscle strength in the arms and shoulders, and test function and range of motion.
Based on your history, symptoms and results of the physical exam, imaging studies including x-rays, MRI or CT scans may be ordered to determine the cause for your chronic neck pain such as arthritis or degeneration.
What are the treatments for neck pain?
Initial treatment is nonsurgical. It involves brief rest, pain and anti-inflammatory medication, heat, and cold therapy, stretching, strengthening, massage and chiropractic. Muscle relaxers, prescription pain medications, and steroid injections can help reduce pain and inflammation. Even cervical disc herniation can improve with conservative measures.
Surgery is only considered when a clear cause has been identified and conservative measures have not relieved pain. The goal of surgery is to decompress the spine and nerves, improve spinal stability and maintain or correct spinal alignment.
At the Center for Orthopedic Specialists with offices in Mission Hills, Tarzana, West Hills, and Westlake Village, we are here to help you deal with neck pain and offer low tech and state of the art treatment options. Contact us to get a consultation.