What’s Causing Your Neck Pain? Everything You Need to Know About Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 16% of the U.S. population experiences neck pain.
Whether you have experienced it for the first time or suffered for years, there’s no mistaking the stiffness, aching, limited mobility, or nerve-related pain that can travel down your arm and into your fingers.
Keep reading to learn about the symptoms and causes of neck pain and the latest treatments available for addressing your issues. Also, learn when it’s appropriate to visit a spine surgeon to discuss minimally-invasive procedures and surgical options.
What Does Neck Pain Feel Like?
Neck pain can manifest itself as tight muscles or stiffness. It can ramp up to more advanced nerve-related pain that travels into your arms and hands. It can cause you to feel pressure as well as pain.
At its worst, it may be acute pain that sends you to an immediate care center. It can cause numbness, clumsiness, and problems with balance.
What Are the Common Causes of Neck Pain?
Neck pain can be caused by muscle strain or other basic stiff neck causes like sleeping in an awkward position. It can also be caused by minor trauma or stress.
If you’ve done something out of the ordinary, such as carrying heavy suitcases or hiking with a heavy backpack—both of which stress your cervical spine—you may experience pain in your neck.
Pain in your neck can manifest after a car accident, amusement park ride, or fall. The elderly are at higher risk for falls, which can cause fractures of the spine, leading to pain in the neck. Adventurous, thrill-seeking individuals can fall from heights from extreme sports and other activities. Falling from heights can cause fractures, leading to neck pain.
Some of the common reasons people experience neck pain include:
- Sports injuries
- Car accidents
- Work-related injuries/repetitive on-the-job motions
- Lifting heavy objects
- A fall
- Poor work-from-home ergonomics
- “Tech neck” (overuse of computer monitors, tablets, and phones)
- Bone spurs
- Herniated or damaged discs
- Nerve compression
- Genetic deformities
Will the Pain in My Neck Resolve on Its Own?
If pain in your neck is due to a muscle strain, it will resolve on its own most of the time. However, if neck pain graduates to pain in the shoulder, arm, or hand, that can indicate some nerve involvement.
Some treatments can help if your neck pain is caused by nerve compression, a herniated disc, arthritis, bone spurs, or something more advanced like myelopathy, a disorder that should be addressed as soon as possible to avoid loss of function.
It’s important to see a specialist who can help diagnose your specific type of pain and recommend the appropriate treatments to alleviate your symptoms.
Who Should You See for Neck Pain?
For common sports injuries, patients can visit a sports medicine physician to evaluate, manage, and treat neck pain.
Another option for minor injuries that cause pain in the neck is to see a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, also called a physiatrist.
If you have a chronic neck pain issue, a pain management physician may be able to help you manage your pain with epidural steroid injections and other treatment options.
Physiatrists and pain management physicians have extensive experience in treating neck and back injuries with non-operative or minimally-invasive methods.
If you experience neck pain resulting from a fracture, you should see a spine surgeon. Spine surgeons at IBJI diagnose and treat spine disorders and, whenever possible, offer the most minimally-invasive surgical techniques to avoid complications and reduce recovery times. They address more complex spinal issues.
Some of the conditions spine surgeons treat include:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Cervical disc herniations
- Bone spurs
- Tumors of the spine
- Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Spinal fractures
- Spinal stenosis
How Can You Prevent Neck Pain?
Make sure your backpack doesn’t weigh more than 20% of your body weight if you’re headed out for a hike.
A heavy purse or overloaded laptop bag can put pressure on the nerves and muscles of your neck and shoulders. It can also cause uneven load bearing. A better option is a lightweight clutch or wallet purse. You can try using a small backpack purse that evenly distributes the weight across your back and shoulders.
If you do need to carry a purse or tote, remember to alternate shoulders and perform some light stretches to keep muscles from tightening. Muscle strain causes tightness, which can lead to neck pain.
Proper Lifting Mechanics
Many people injure themselves when carrying heavy loads. This can result in chronic neck pain. You can lessen your risk of injury by separating heavy loads into smaller ones and making several trips.
If you’re moving, pack small boxes that are a manageable weight. Always remember to bend at the knee when lifting, and carry the load close to your body.
The way to know if a mattress and pillow are right for you is by gauging how you feel when you wake up in the morning. If you’re not in a comfortable position, you will recognize this by waking up to a tingling sensation, indicating that your neck is not properly positioned. This can result in neck pain.
Find a pillow that supports your neck based on your sleeping habits (side, back, or combination side/back sleeping) to avoid neck stiffness and pain.
Text Neck/Tech Neck
One of the biggest culprits of neck pain is spending too much time bent over a tablet, phone, or computer. Be cognisant of your ergonomics. Take frequent breaks and make sure your computer monitor is at eye level.
Whether you’re working from home or in an office, try to alternate between standing and sitting. Neither one is good for an extended period of time. The key is to remain as mobile as possible throughout the day. Keep changing positions and don’t cross your legs, as this can limit circulation and affect muscular balance.
How is Neck Pain Tested and Diagnosed?
A patient can expect to share their medical history with their physician and undergo a physical examination, which would include testing reflexes. Imaging may include radiographic pictures such as MRI, CT scan, or a myelogram. These images will give the physician the necessary information to make an accurate diagnosis about the cause of your neck pain.
What Are the Treatments for Neck Pain?
Many neck issues can be resolved or reduced using treatments other than surgery. In urgent cases, surgical procedures may be the answer, but many of them are considered minimally invasive. You and your doctor can discuss the treatment plan that is best for you.
Anti-inflammatory and pain medication such as Advil, Aleve, and Tylenol can help reduce your neck pain.
Heat and ice therapy can also help. A general rule is to apply heat or ice for 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off. You can alternate these therapies based on what helps you to feel the most pain relief.
Non-Invasive Treatments for Neck Pain
Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, stretches, strengthening, a TENS unit, or manual treatments to alleviate your pain. If you visit a pain doctor, you can receive trigger point injections or epidural steroid injections to address your neck pain.
For acute pain issues, IBJI offers the Back to Life Clinic in Glenview. You can be seen by a pain management physician who can discuss the next steps for solving your neck pain.
Types of Surgeries for Neck Pain
There are multiple surgeries available that are proven to reduce or eliminate pain in the neck or nerve-related arm/hand pain altogether. Thanks to advanced medical technologies and evidence-based research, spine surgeons have been able to continue to offer procedures that are less invasive, making recovery easier.
Anterior Cervical Discectomy Fusion (ACDF)
One of the most common surgeries, ACDF, can be done at IBJI, often on an outpatient basis (for the appropriate patients). This surgery has a high success rate and returns many people back to normal activities without neck pain.
ACDF involves the removal of a disc and bone spurs compressing the spinal nerves or spinal cord from the front of the neck. Two levels are then fused together. It is often most appropriate for patients who have one to three levels of compression.
Cervical Disc Replacement
Very similar to ACDF surgery, cervical disc replacement can address neck problems from the front of the neck. Instead of fusing the bones together, an implant is placed which can retain the motion at that disc level. This surgery has a high success rate when performed on appropriately selected patients. It is often performed as an outpatient procedure. Not all patients qualify for a cervical disc replacement procedure and your surgeon can discuss this option if appropriate.
To take pressure off of the spinal cord from the back of the neck, the surgeon removes portions of the bones, which creates more space for the spinal cord.
Laminectomy is combined with a fusion procedure using screws and rods to hold the vertebral segments together until the bone grows and fuses them to one another. This effective, reliable treatment works well for patients with spinal cord compression at multiple levels.
A cervical laminoplasty can address multi-level issues but is still motion sparing. Not all patients qualify for a laminoplasty procedure and your surgeon can discuss this option if appropriate.
An anterior cervical corpectomy is performed by a spine surgeon to address bigger issues that involve correcting spinal deformity or neck malalignment that may be causing neck pain. One of the vertebrae is removed to realign the spine.
When Should You Consult a Spine Surgeon for Neck Pain?
If all other conservative treatments have failed over time, surgical options for neck pain may be your best option for improving your quality of life.
Get Relief for Your Neck Pain
If you have nerve pain traveling down one or both arms, or if you are developing weakness or problems with fine motor skills, it may be time to consider a surgical procedure to get relief.
If you’re experiencing acute pain, numbness, or tingling due to nerve damage, or other symptoms that have affected your ability to function on a daily basis, you should contact us immediately to schedule an appointment.
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