As technology becomes a bigger part of our lives and we spend more and more time in front of a computer screen, a lot of people complain about having a pain in the neck. Neck pain can seriously limit your ability to perform normal, everyday tasks. Loss of range of motion in your neck can also lead to shoulder pain, and or pain/numbness in your arms and hands.
Your neck, or cervical spine, is made up of seven bones called vertebrae which are stacked upon one another. In between each bone lies a spongy material called the intervertebral disc. Each vertebra has two joints towards the back that connect with the joints of the vertebrae below it. These bones in your neck protect your spinal cord and allow normal motion.
If you start having neck pain, don’t panic, it often gets better in just a few days. If it persists, however, a visit to a Physical Therapist for a complete exam could give you some answers and help alleviate neck pain and prevent it from reoccurring.
What causes neck pain?
Muscle tension and strain
This is typically caused by the activities that you do such as:
- Spending too many hours working at your desk without changing positions
- Spending too much time on the phone (usually cradled between your shoulder and ear)
- Repetitive motions (e.g. turning side to side while dancing or swimming)
- Jerking your neck while exercising
- Sleeping in a bad position
- Having poor posture
Neck pain can also be caused by diseases/health conditions such as:
Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease or degenerative arthritis. It affects approximately 27 million Americans, making it the most common chronic condition of the joints. It can affect any joint but it occurs most often in the neck, lower back, knees, and hips. It affects people of all ages but it is most common in people older than 65.
Osteoarthritis can cause the cartilage between your vertebrae to deteriorate. As a result, your body will form bone spurs that will affect the movement of your joints and this will eventually cause pain.
Osteoporosis is a disease wherein the density and quality of the bones are reduced. Since the bones weaken, this leads to small fractures common in hands and knees. However, these small fractures can also occur in the neck area, resulting in neck pain. Osteoporosis affects approximately 75 million people in the USA, Europe, and Japan.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. The joints and bone spurs become painful and inflamed. If the swelling occurs in the neck area, the patient will experience neck pain. Approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis.
The human body has disks that serve as cushions between the vertebrae. These disks help minimize the impact of movement on the spinal cord. A disk is like a jelly doughnut that has a soft center called nucleus pulposus. A disk is herniated if there is an abnormal rupture in the center.
If you have herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of your neck, these can press on nerves that branch out from your spinal cord. This causes neck pain.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder that causes fatigue and muscle pain throughout your body. People who suffer from fibromyalgia have constant headaches, neck pain, pain in the joints and other tender points that often prevent them from sleeping. Fibromyalgia affects approximately 10 million people in the U.S. and around 3 to 6% of the world population.
In some cases, neck pain can be a symptom of a heart attack and often comes with other symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, arm or jaw pain, nausea and vomiting.
Meningitis is a rare infection that inflames the membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and the spinal cord. The swelling leads to headaches, fever, and stiff neck.
The neck is vulnerable to injury from sudden impacts or blows (e.g. in sports), or from a vehicular accident. A common cause of neck pain is whiplash or cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD).
Whiplash occurs when a person’s neck and head are suddenly forced backward and then forward causing the cervical spine to go through opposite motions quickly. This brings extreme stress to the cervical spine and causes neck pain after the incident which lasts for a few days or weeks. This normally happens when a person has been rear-ended in a car accident.
Other rare causes of neck pain are:
- Cancer of the spine
The anatomy of the neck
The cervical spine includes the spinal cord, 7 vertebrae, small intervertebral discs that absorb shock, joints, 8 nerve roots, 32 muscles, vascular elements, and ligaments. The head is supported by the bones, muscles, and ligaments of the neck. Inflammation, injury, or any abnormalities in this part of your body can cause stiffness or neck pain.
Can neck pain be prevented?
Neck pain may not be easily prevented when it is caused by a medical condition but in most instances, it can be prevented by making some changes in your routine, such as:
Take frequent breaks while working and traveling long distances
At work, stop every now and then. Get up, walk around and stretch your neck and shoulders. If you have to travel long distances, stop the car every few miles or so and move around and stretch.
Practice good posture
Stand up straight. Your shoulders should always be in a straight line over your hips. Do not slouch. Your ears should always be directly over your shoulders. This should also be your posture when sitting down.
Sit properly when working on your computer
Your computer monitor must always be at eye level and your knees should be slightly lower than your hips.
Do not tuck your phone between your ear and shoulder
Use a speakerphone or headset especially if you are on the phone most of the time.
Make sure that you always sleep in a good position
Use a pillow under your neck and your neck and head should align with your body. Avoid sleeping on a bed that’s too soft or too hard.
Research shows that there is a link between smoking and neck pain.
Avoid carrying heavy shoulder bags
If you carry heavy bags with shoulder straps, these can strain your neck and cause pain.
When should you consult a physical therapist?
You should contact a physical therapist if:
- Your neck pain is the result of an injury
- The pain in your neck is severe
- The pain persists for several days
- The pain radiates down your arms or legs
- Your neck pain comes with a fever, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, tingling, or numbness
- You are having trouble swallowing or breathing
- You are unable to move your arms or hands
- You are unable to touch your chin to your chest
If there is anything we at Resolve Physical Therapy can do for you, don’t hesitate to contact us.