The basics of neck pain
- The neck is very flexible but can be vulnerable to pain that can often hinder daily activities, such as driving or even getting a good night’s rest.
- Common causes of pain are poor posture, trauma, wear and tear, or underlying conditions or issues such as arthritis.
- Pain can vary by intensity and frequency depending on the cause. It does not always require treatment and sometimes resolves on its own.
- Spine & Sport Physical Therapy works with anyone experiencing neck discomfort to manage pain, regain movement and recover from injury.
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What is neck pain?
The neck consists of muscles, tendons, seven stacked bones called vertebrae, discs in between each vertebrae and nerves that pass through the neck to travel to other parts of the body. The neck supports the head and enables a person to look and move in many directions. Pain in the neck occurs when any of the structures such as tendons, discs or muscles are torn, strained or otherwise injured.
Injuries to the neck may cause pain, numbness or tingling to be felt in other areas of the body depending on the structure that is affected. Certain injuries can cause nerves to become compressed or pinched, causing the pain to extend beyond the base of the neck to other bodily areas such as the upper back, arm or shoulder.
This pain can make it difficult to accomplish daily tasks, from driving a car to typing on a computer or doing kitchen tasks.
- Persistent or stabbing pain at the base of the head and/or throughout the neck.
- Muscle tightness and spasms.
- Decreased range of motion.
- Pain accompanied by tingling or numbness.
What causes neck pain?
There are many causes, but it is most commonly a result of strain or injury to the structures forming the neck (bones, tendons, muscles, etc.). This can include the following.
- Overuse. For example, poor posture, sitting too long in a single position or even gritting the teeth can strain the neck.
- Trauma. This can include falls, workplace or sports injuries, or car accidents.
- Wear and tear. As with joints in the body, normal use or aging affects the cartilage between the bones in the neck. This can cause pain and other issues.
- Nerve compression. Bone spurs and herniated disks in the neck can press on the nerves branching out from the spinal cord, creating pain.
- Diseases. The pain can be a symptom of other conditions, such as tumors, cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.
Risk factors for developing neck pain
- Working long hours at a computer.
- Poor posture or hunching down often (such as looking at a smartphone).
- Being overweight.
- Older age.
- Strenuous physical activity.
- Poor sleeping alignment.
Risks of not treating the pain
Untreated pain can be debilitating, disrupting work and daily activities. It can also progress and cause secondary conditions such as shoulder pain, muscle tension, headaches or migraines.
How to relieve neck pain
Common home treatments include applying heat or ice, gentle stretching or massage, over the counter pain medications (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen), and avoiding activity and exertion for a day or two.
If the pain does not go away on its own or after home treatments, patients can seek a physician’s care as a first step or set up an appointment with a Spine & Sport physical therapist, who can help evaluate neck pain. Before attempting to treat the pain at home, patients should always consult with a physical therapist or other medical professional to ensure that it is being treated properly.
Physical therapy for neck pain
Doctors often prescribe physical therapy to strengthen or repair injured structures and improve overall range of motion. During the initial appointment, a physical therapist evaluates the nature of the pain and complaints. For example, is pain limited to the neck, does it accompany headaches or tingling and what impact does it have on function? This frequently involves testing range of motion, pain and tenderness, strength, posture and flexibility.
This assessment provides a baseline for the condition while also helping the therapist determine the best treatment regimen. If neck pain is the result of major trauma, disease or another serious condition, our physical therapist will consult with the primary care doctor.
Treatment strategies will involve a combination of physical therapy exercises, manual techniques and modalities. The therapist will help the patient by these means:
- Correct posture.
- Prescribe exercises to stretch and strengthen the neck.
- Use heat to improve blood flow.
- Use ice treatments to fight inflammation.
- Coach the patient through lifestyle changes to decrease neck pain and prevent damage.
For example, a physical therapist can teach exercises to help strengthen the neck and upper back muscles, thereby correcting posture and alignment. Some of these treatment recommendations are part of a home program to maintain improvements in pain relief.
Most physical therapy appointments last an hour, although that can vary. The total number of sessions needed depends on the individual’s specific issues and underlying conditions. Some patients may only require a few sessions, while others may require ongoing therapy to manage chronic conditions.
When to see a doctor
One generally should see a doctor if the neck pain results from a traumatic injury. Because neck pain can sometimes indicate a more serious condition, a person should seek immediate medical care if:
- The pain is accompanied by numbness or strength loss in the arms and hands.
- The pain from the neck shoots into the shoulders or arms.
- The pain is associated with loss of vision or visual changes.
- The pain is associated with impaired cognition or change in mental status.
If the pain is severe or persistent, the person should seek help from a medical professional.
A provider will review the patient’s medical history, discuss symptoms and conduct a physical exam in order to accurately diagnose the cause of neck pain. If a condition such as arthritis is causing the pain, a physician can help treat that underlying condition. In some cases, imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRI scans or diagnostic injections, are needed when trying to locate or confirm an underlying issue.
A healthcare provider may prescribe medication that will help with the condition. In rare cases, such as with a compressed spinal cord, the physician may recommend surgery to remove tissue pressing against nerves.
Spine & Sport clinics offering physical therapy for neck pain near me
All of our clinics in Southern & Northern California offer physical therapy services for neck pain.