The cervical spine comprises of the first 7 vertebrae. It supports the weight of the head and allows its smooth movement. Neck pain refers to pain or discomfort resulting from abnormalities or injuries to any of the structures in the neck, including the muscles, ligaments, nerves, bones, and vertebral joints. Neck pain is one of the most common health problems experienced by individuals at some point of their lives.
Neck pain can either be a dull constant pain or a sudden sharp pain and is usually aggravated by movement. Apart from pain, you may also experience muscle spasms, clumsy hand movements, gait and balance disturbances, numbness or tingling sensations, stiff neck, and swelling and tenderness over the affected region. Neck pain may also be associated with headache, dizziness, jaw pain, ringing sensation in the ears, and rarely bowel or bladder problems.
Neck pain may either be localized to the neck or may radiate to the shoulders, upper back, or arms. Cervical radiculopathy refers to the pain that originates in the neck and radiates to the arms.
Neck pain can result from muscle strain or sprain, trauma, poor posture and body mechanics, degenerative diseases, nerve compression, osteoarthritis of the cervical spine, infection of the cervical spine, and spinal tumors.
The diagnosis for neck pain is based on the medical history along with a physical examination and neurological examination. Your doctor will test your sensations, reflexes, and the strength of the muscles. Other imaging tests such as an X-ray or CT scan may also be used to confirm the diagnosis and detect any spinal fractures.
In a majority of the cases, neck pain can be resolved without surgery. Conservative treatments such as activity modifications, anti-inflammatory and pain medications, muscle relaxants, spinal injections, physical therapy, braces, and chiropractic care may help alleviate pain and associated symptoms. Your doctor may recommend combining two or more therapies to maximize the chances of a successful treatment outcome.
Surgery may be necessary for those who do not respond to conservative treatment or have cervical spine instability or neurologic dysfunction.
You can prevent or improve your neck pain by following these simple steps:
- Perform relaxation exercises to reduce the undesirable stress on the neck muscles.
- Stretching exercises should be performed before and after exercise.
- Maintain a good posture.
- If you work at a computer, adjust the monitor to your eye level. Stretch your neck frequently.
- If you use the telephone often, use a headset.
- Use a pillow that keeps your neck straight.
- Wear seat belts and use bike helmets to reduce injuries while driving or riding.