Have you ever bent over your computer only to feel a sharp pain in your neck? Were you playing tag with the kids and felt a sudden twinge at your neckline? You’re not alone.
Neck pain is a common complaint among adults and 20% to 70% will experience symptoms that interfere with their daily lives at one point or another. However, not many people can determine the source or cause of pain because the neck is a rather complex arrangement of skin, bones, muscles and nerves.
Your neck and upper back — or cervical spine — consist of a column of seven bones that descend from the base of your skull to support your head. Between each bone is an intervertebral disc, which, together, support the upper and lower vertebrae, absorb shock and allow movement.
The height of each disc allows enough space for spinal nerves, vertebral veins and arteries to pass through the bones of your cervical spine and stretch out to each side of your body. These nerve structures provide sensation and motor function to your head, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists and hands. Therefore, if your neck hurts, you might also experience pain elsewhere in your upper body.
Because the neck can move in so many different directions, it’s relatively easy to strain — so easy, in fact, that some people sleep funny and wake up with a sore neck. However, determining the origin of your pain isn’t always so simple.
If you only experience discomfort for a few hours or days, you may have sustained a slight injury. However, if you suffer from neck pain for more than a couple of days, you may be experiencing the effects of something more serious like a degenerative disease.
For instance, acute or short-term pain often results from a muscle of tendon strain or ligament sprain. Many cases of strains and sprains are due to overuse and overextension from poor posture, repetitive movements, whiplash and sleeping in an awkward position. Meanwhile, sufferers of long-term or chronic neck pain may be experiencing symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis or a herniated disc, all of which are relatively common side effects of aging.
You might also experience both acute and chronic pain from emotional stress, infection fibromyalgia and even spinal tumors, which are often difficult to diagnose. Therefore, it’s best to visit your doctor if you’ve been battling discomfort and can’t determine the cause.
Whether you choose to book an appointment with your medical provider or not, it’s important to document any symptoms of neck, back and shoulder pain. Should your condition worsen, medical professionals will be happy to have some sort of record of your pain progression.
Neck pain can manifest itself in a number of ways. However, if your cervical spine is in distress, you may experience anything from a dull ache to sharp, stabbing sensations. Soreness, tenderness and pulsations at the sight are also common symptoms.
Because the cervical spine and upper body are connected by nerves and arteries, these symptoms may be more noticeable if you turn or move your head and neck. Additionally, you might notice symptoms in other areas of your body like your arms, shoulders and upper or lower back. Swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing and a limited range of motion are quite common, too.
Diagnosing neck pain can be difficult, if not impossible, at home. Plus, there’s always a chance that you misdiagnose yourself, attempt to alleviate the pain and make your condition worse. Therefore, it’s best to seek a professional diagnosis and treatment if your neck pain is interfering with daily life.
Upon arrival, your doctor will inquire about your medical history and conduct a visual exam. How far can you move your head in each direction? Where do you feel the most pain or numbness? They might also order an x-ray, CT scan or MRI to review the internal structure of your neck and spine and determine the cause of your discomfort. A blood test and electromyography may also reveal pinched nerves or evidence of inflammatory or infectious conditions that might be contributing to the pain.
In most cases, your neck will respond well to self-care and heal itself in a few weeks. However, if your pain persists, your doctor may prescribe medication or therapy to alleviate discomfort and accelerate recovery. For example, if poor posture and weak neck muscles are the root cause of pain, your doctor might send you to a physical therapist to strengthen your posture, ease pain and prevent a recurrence.
Short-term immobilization may also give your neck the chance to heal if you’ve been in an accident or sustained serious injuries. This treatment option requires you to wear a soft collar or brace to take pressure off your cervical spine. However, if your pain is great enough, your medical professional might recommend steroid injections or surgery as a long-term treatment for nerve root or spinal cord compression.
Most of the time, you won’t be able to predict or prevent neck strains and subsequent pain. However, you can minimize your chance of sustaining an injury by strengthening your neck muscles with exercise and practicing good posture. Sleeping on your back, using a headset to talk on the phone and drinking plenty of water are also good ways to stay promote neck — and overall — health in the long run.