Neck pain is a very common complaint. You can strain your neck muscles due to poor posture- whether at work, leaning into your computer or at home, hunched over your workbench. Arthritis is also a very common cause of neck pain.
Very rarely is neck pain an indication of an underlying, more serious problem. However, you should know that you should seek medical attention if you have neck pain in conjunction with the following:
- Numbness/loss of strength in arms/hands
- Shooting pain in shoulder or down arm
If you do see your doctor, you should make sure to give him/her as much information as you can regarding the location and severity of the neck pain you’re experiencing. Also, make sure that you let him/her know which, if any, head/neck movements make it worse or better.
Causes of Neck Pain
Just as with most other types of pain, neck pain can have a variety of causes, including the following:
Muscle strains are most often triggered by overuse- too many hours hunched over a steering wheel, reading in bed, or even grinding your teeth. This can cause neck pain.
As you get older, the joints in your neck undergo wear and tear, just like the other joints in your body. This results in osteoarthritis- and therefore, pain- in your neck.
Bone spurs or herniated discs in the vertebrae of your neck can take up too much space and press down on the nerves that branch out from your spinal cord, which results in nerve pain in the neck.
Events such as a rear-end auto collision that results in whiplash- when the head is jerked back and then forward, stretching the soft tissues- can cause neck pain.
Finally, neck pain can be caused by specific diseases, such as cancer, RA, or even meningitis.
Diagnosing the Cause of Your Neck Pain
If you have neck pain, you may want to consider seeing your doctor. He/she will perform a physical exam, in which he/she will check for any numbness, muscle weakness, or tenderness. He/she will also have you move your head as far as you can to the front, to the back, and side to side.
Additionally, he/she may perform some imaging and/or blood tests.
In some cases, your physician could order some imaging tests in order to get a better picture of what could be the cause of your neck pain. Some examples of imaging tests include:
This will reveal areas in your neck where the nerves or spinal cord could be pinched by a bulging disc or bone spur.
CT scans are a combination of x-ray images taken from various directions in order to create a detailed cross-sectional views of the internal structures of your neck.
MRI scans use radio waves and an extremely strong magnetic field in order to build a detailed image of your bones and soft tissues, including your spinal cord and the nerves coming from it.
However, in some cases, an x-ray or MRI could reveal structural issues in your neck, and you may never experience any symptoms of neck pain. So, it can be very hard to figure out if your symptoms are being caused by what is revealed on these imaging tests.
If your physician suspects that your neck pain could be caused by a pinched nerve, he/she may recommend an EMG, or electromyography. In this test, very fine needles will be inserted through your skin into a muscle to find out whether specific nerves are properly functioning.
Finally, if your imaging tests or the nerve test doesn’t reveal anything, your doctor could order some lab tests. These can include blood tests or a spinal tap.
Sometimes, blood tests will show evidence of infectious or inflammatory conditions that are causing you to have neck pain.
In a spinal tap, your doctor will insert a needle into your spine to get a sample of the fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord- this will show if you have meningitis.
Treating Your Neck Pain
Even if you end up needing medical treatment such as prescription medications to ease your neck pain, the following natural treatments can help to speed up the healing process.
Use Heat and Ice
There really is no evidence that heat and ice really do help. However, it is known that they don’t hurt. So, when your neck is bothering you, consider doing the following:
- Every 2-3 hours, use a heating pad on low to medium heat for 15-20 minutes at a time.
- For one session, skip the heating pad and take a warm shower.
- Purchase some of those single use heat wraps- they can last for up to 8 hours.
- Every 2-3 hours, use an ice pack for 10-15 minutes at a time.
Carefully Get Moving
Yes, you’re in pain- but one of the best things to do is to get back to your normal activities as soon as possible. However, make sure you ease back into them- you don’t want to cause more injury. After all, movement helps your muscles stay stable and strong.
- Stay away from those activities that cause your pain and stiffness to be worse.
- Do some strengthening and stretching exercises that will help your neck stay strong and flexible- this will prevent stiffness from setting in.
- Make some changes to or stay away from those activities that are causing or contributing to your neck pain, such as sitting for long periods of time at the computer or doing too much work overhead at a time. Get up and stretch as much as possible- and do some neck stretching exercises.
- Take some time to gently rub or massage the area to encourage the flow of blood and relieve pain. However, if massaging causes pain, don’t rub the injured area. You can get some medicated OTC creams or gels meant for just this type of pain.
Prevent Injury/Pain in the First Place
- If possible, do what you can to reduce tension/stress both at work and at home.
- Take a few moments during the day or at night to practice some relaxation exercises: yoga and meditation are two that seem to work well for most people.
- Visit a massage therapist for a professional massage.
- If you’re a smoker, you should give it up. After all, smoking slows the healing process because it reduces blood supply and postpones the repair of tissues.
- Get regular exercise- including walking or some other form of aerobic exercise.