Definition and Overview

Neck pain is a common medical condition but rarely a sign of a more serious problem. With typical causes such as a muscle strain due to bad posture and prolonged time spent working in front of the computer, it affects over 300 million people around the world. Based on official figures, the condition is more common in women than men. Most of those who experience neck pain are normally able to manage the symptoms using home remedies. However, approximately 10% of the cases go on to become chronic pain.

Causes of Condition

The joints located at the top of the neck facilitate and allow movement of the head and the neck. Meanwhile, the joints in the lower part of the neck and the upper back provide support for the head. This lower area, which serves as the support system for the head, is usually where the neck pain arises.

One of the most common causes of neck pain is strain in the neck muscles. This is usually due to poor posture or sleeping in the wrong position. It can also be due to staying in one position for a prolonged period of time, such as when hunching while working.

Other common causes include the following:

  • Injury or diseases in any of the organs and structures located in the neck such as the nerves, the blood vessels, the thyroid gland, the cervical lymph nodes, the digestive tract, the airway, the muscles, the cervical skeleton, and the spinal cord.

  • Acute coronary syndromes or a heart attack.

  • Degenerative diseases, such as cervical spondylosis or arthritis of the cervical spine, as well as spinal diseases.

  • Infections of various structures in the neck, which include throat infections, retropharyngeal abscesses, lymphadenitis or lymph node enlargement, spinal osteomyelitis, and Pott’s disease or tuberculosis of the spine.

  • Meningitis or infection of the meninges, malignancies or cancers of the head and neck, dissection of the carotid artery, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and radiculopathies or impingement of the nerves arising from the cervical vertebrae.

  • Falls, whiplash injuries, car accidents and contact sports injuries can cause neck injuries, as well as vertebral fractures, and in severe cases involving the spine, paralysis.

Key Symptoms

Neck pain is usually described as a dull aching or gnawing sensation. Some forms of neck pain may also be described as sharp, shooting pain. Most of the time, the pain is made worse by movement or turning of the head and neck, leading to what is known as “stiff neck”. Other common symptoms include headache and dizziness, as well as a sensation of numbness or pulsations.

Since neck pain is caused by a variety of disorders, many other symptoms can also accompany it.

For example, neck pain caused by disorders of the throat and esophagus may produce difficulty in swallowing together with the neck pain, while infectious processes may result in fever and weakness. On the other hand, neck pain that is caused by nerve impingement or that has spinal cord involvement may present with pain on the face and shoulders, and numbness or tingling, also known as paresthesias, of the extremities. Neck pain may also be accompanied by pain in the upper and lower back. This usually occurs in conditions where the spine is involved, such as in ankylosing spondylitis.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

The management of neck pain varies, depending on the exact cause of the condition. In most cases, neck pain can be treated successfully with conservative techniques. Below are some of the techniques that you can do at home:

  • Rest and reduce physical activities for a few days to allow the inflammation to subside.
  • Apply a cold pack over the neck for the first 48 hours, followed by a warm compress or a heating pad.
  • Take pain medications containing ibuprofen for immediate relief.
  • Do range-of-motion and strengthening exercises, as well as muscle stretching.
  • Minimize muscle tension through various relaxation techniques.
  • Get gentle massages.
  • Ensure proper posture and adequate back support at all times.
  • Use firm mattress and ergonomic pillow to support your neck when sleeping.

If you develop systemic signs and symptoms, such as a fever, vomiting, chest pain or shortness of breath, as well as numbness or a tingling sensation in your hands or feet, you should go to the hospital immediately. You should also go to the emergency room if the neck pain is due to an accident or a traumatic injury. The diagnosing physician will run several diagnostic examinations and imaging tests, such as x-rays. These can reveal diseases that affect the bones, discs, and spinal fractures. For further work-up, you may be asked to undergo magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, which shows the soft tissues, ligaments and nerves of the cervical spine with more precision.

If your health care provider suspects a more serious condition, you will be referred to a neurologist for further evaluation. Immobilization using a soft collar may be performed to decrease the pressure on the neck. Topical anesthetics or steroid injections may also be used in cases where oral pain medications are ineffective. Surgery is not usually recommended except in cases where the cause of neck pain is a tumor or spinal cord compression.

References:

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/
  • American Association of Neurological Surgeons. http://www.aans.org/
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