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One morning, you wake-up with a burning or tingling sensation in your neck. Perhaps it feels stiff or tender and you just can’t figure out why! Did you sleep “funny” or catch a draft on your neck? Maybe it was when your car was rear-ended or when you twisted the wrong way at the gym. Whatever is causing your neck pain, all you know is… it hurts and you want it to go away, before it gets worse!
Neck pain – also referred to as cervical pain, can strike anywhere from the bottom of your head to the top of your shoulders. It can quickly spread to your upper back or arms, limiting head and neck movement. You may experience crippling headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, depression and fatigue – which can last for days, weeks, months or years, especially if left untreated. Long-term pain has the potential to limit daily activities and reduce your quality of life. The possibility for neck pain and injury are constant, therefore, a little anatomy is needed.
Your neck is amazing! It begins at the base of the skull, and contains 7 small bones or vertebrae. Between each vertebrae are intervertebral discs (tough shock-absorbing pads). In addition, the neck has joints, muscles and ligaments that allow movement and provide stability. It carries the weight of your head… 8 – 12 pounds and has the ability to nod up and down (90° of forward and backward motion) and turn right and left (180° of side to side motion, and almost 120° of tilt to each shoulder). The nerves in your neck help the brain communicate with your shoulders, arms and chest. The arteries and veins circulate blood between the brain and the heart. With so much freedom of movement, comes the risk for pain and injury!
Finding this cause, begins with a thorough health history, understanding of the patient’s symptoms, along with a structural and muscular examination. Physical Therapists and Chiropractors may work together to perform a manual exam, palpate the spine and conduct specialized testing to analyze posture, range-of-motion, muscle strength and nerve function. Other diagnostic tests may include laboratory blood studies to determine if there is an underlying disorder, x-rays, CAT scan, MRI, electromyography and nerve conduction studies.
It is important to understand that neck pain symptoms can signify different things! For instance, the same symptom could indicate an inflammatory concern, nerve entrapment issue, disc or muscular problem – that is why finding the exact cause is so vital!
Most neck pain can be caused by activities that result in repeated or prolonged movements to the neck’s muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones or joints. This can result in a strain (overstretched or overused muscles), sprain (injury to a ligament), a spasm of the neck muscles or inflammation of the neck joints. Poor Posture (improper position when sitting, reading, sleeping or working at a computer), Injury (auto, sports or slip and fall), Improper Bending and Lifting Techniques, Inadequate Muscle Strength, Shortened Muscles, Strained Muscles or Ligaments, Scoliosis, Osteoarthritis, Being Overweight, Facet Joint Syndrome, Pinched Nerve, Cervical Spinal Stenosis, Bulging or Herniated Disc or Segmental Instability (excess movement between two vertebrae, causing pinching or irritation of the nerve roots) are factors to be explored and analyzed. The stress and emotional tension of having neck pain can lead to more neck pain… muscles become tight and contract. Choices have to be made, decisions regarding surgery, medication and alternative therapy must be considered.
Neck pain sufferers may not realize how some of their activities and lifestyle choices have directly or indirectly caused their neck pain. Perhaps they fell asleep on a chair or couch while watching television or maybe they have a tendency to sleep on their stomach. Other people might not realize that the weight of their pocketbook or holding their cell phone jammed between their ear and shoulder has caused their neck pain. Finally, many individuals find themselves sitting at the computer for many hours with poor posture. This poor posture continues as they travel home – either by car, bus or train.
After finding the cause, the proper treatment can be instituted to achieve neck pain relief. Treatment may include medication management, as well as injections of ligaments, muscles, bursae, joints and specialized injections such as epidural injections or facet joint block injection. Physical Therapy, Chiropractic or Acupuncture may be an integral part of the neck pain treatment program.
Neck pain relief is a major reason people treat with chiropractic physicians. They find that pain is relieved, muscle tightness is reduced and healing begins by manually applying a controlled force to joints that have become restricted by muscle injury, strain, inflammation and/or pain. In addition, spinal decompression – traction that may help relieve neck pain, may be considered. Spinal decompression works by gently stretching the spine – taking pressure off spinal discs (gel-like cushions between the bones in your spine). Additionally, spinal decompression is successful in treating back pain, bulging or herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, posterior facet syndrome (worn spinal joints) and radiculopathy (injured or diseased spinal nerve roots). This revolutionary treatment method, which may be covered by health insurance – has resulted in canceling surgeries and allowing people to live life to the fullest. Many neck pain sufferers experience substantial, immediate relief of their symptoms after their first treatment.
There are several forms of physical therapy utilized for neck pain relief. For acute pain, the physical therapist may focus on decreasing pain with passive physical therapy (modalities). They are considered passive therapies because they are done to the patient, rather than the patient rehabilitating with exercise. Examples of modalities include: Ice (makes blood vessels constrict which decreases the blood flow – helping to control inflammation, muscle spasm and pain), Heat (makes blood vessels dilate, which increases the blood flow – helping flush away chemicals that cause pain, as well as bringing in healing nutrients and oxygen.), Ultrasound (uses high-frequency sound waves to reach sore muscles and other tissues that are over two inches below the surface of your skin, which help flush the sore area and bring in a new supply of blood that is rich in nutrients and oxygen.) Electrical Stimulation (can ease pain by sending impulses to the brain that are felt instead of pain.), Soft Tissue Massage (reduces pain and spasm by helping muscles relax – by bringing in a fresh supply of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood and by flushing the area of chemical irritants that come from inflammation.), Joint Mobilization (changing pressure and movements to the joints to help lubricate joint surfaces to ease stiffness and reduce pain.) and Traction (sore joints and muscles often feel better when traction is used.).
In addition to passive therapies, active physical therapy (exercise) is also necessary to rehabilitate the spine. Generally, a patient’s exercise program will encompass a combination of stretching exercises, strengthening exercises and low impact aerobics. Strength and flexibility must be built up gradually – on a gradient level. Doing too much too soon often causes muscle strain. Physical therapists use functional training to help patients with daily activities. This will include a healthy posture program to keep the spine in safe alignment, reducing strain on the joints and soft tissues around the spine.
Other neck pain relief recommendations include staying hydrated. Drink plenty of water to help flush away acidic waste products from the muscles. High levels of acidic waste products in the muscles can cause muscle irritation and pain. Poor dietary choices can lead to chronic inflammation – increasing pain sensitivity. Daily supplementation of Vitamin D can help alleviate a deficiency and pain, according to recent studies.
If this describes you, a family member or friend… you can get better. After a few short weeks of correct care, you can begin to get on with the rest of your life, as you rid yourself of neck pain.