We have all developed neck pain at some point in our lives. It’s a very common complaint, and luckily, most of the time the ailment is not serious.
The neck, or cervical spine, is formed by the boney vertebrae from the upper torso and ends at the base of the skull. The bony vertebrae, in addition to the supporting ligaments, provide stability to the spine. The muscles allow for support and motion. The cervical spine is capable of extreme motion. It also functions to support the weight of the head. It is this motion and support that makes it more vulnerable to injury.
Neck pain can result from abnormalities of the cervical soft tissues, including the muscles, ligaments, and nerves. Neck pain can also result from injuries to the cervical discs and boney structures. Most neck pain results from muscles strained by poor posture or prolonged wear and tear. Neck pain can also result from injuries to the intervertebral discs, degeneration of the boney supporting structures, injury of the cervical nerve roots, or be due to infection or tumors.
We should seek immediate medical care when shooting pains develop into your shoulder or down your arm, numbness or loss of strength occurs in your arms or hands, when there is a change in bladder or bowel habits, or if significant restrictions develop in the cervical spine range of motion.
After a careful physical examination has been completed, further diagnostic tests such as X-rays, MRI scans, CT Scans (with or without myelography), and electrodiagnostic studies can be useful to determine the source of pain.
Treatment will be determined by the specific cause of the pain. The treatment of soft-tissue injuries can include the use of oral anti-inflammatory medications (such as Aleve or Motrin) and/or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Other drugs such as muscle relaxers and even antidepressants might be helpful. A local application of moist heat or ice may also be used to relieve severe pain.
Physical therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture may also be helpful. For cases in which nerve roots or the spinal cord are involved, surgical treatment may be necessary.
An ounce of prevention is always worth preventing a lifetime of neck pain, arm pain, and/or numbness and tingling that can result from even the most trivial of neck injuries.
Luga Podesta is an assistant clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, practicing orthopedic sports medicine.