Dealing with Neck Pain
What Can Cause It? How Do You Diagnose and Treat It?
When you have pain or discomfort in your neck, it can be difficult to find relief. Your neck carries a heavy load—your head can account for nearly 10% of your total body weight. In addition, your neck is more exposed than your spine, making it more susceptible to injury. Simply sleeping in an awkward position can cause significant pain, but you also can suffer neck injury in a motor vehicle accident (whiplash) or slip-and-fall or from overexertion. Neck pain typically stems from soft tissue injury—muscles, ligaments, or nerves. It also can be the result of wear and tear from repetitive stress or movement.
The Most Common Medical Conditions Involving the Neck
The most frequent maladies associated with the neck include:
- Cervical disc herniation— There are six discs in the neck area, referred to as cervical discs. A hernia is a hole. When you have a hernia in one of your cervical discs, it allows the soft tissue inside the disc to bulge out, impacting nearby nerves or nerve endings.
- Rheumatoid arthritis—This auto-immune condition affects your joints, tissues,and organs, causing inflammation that can result in stiffness, swelling, loss of sensation, and pain.
- Cervical stenosis—Cervical stenosis is a narrowing of the canal that protects your spinal cord, which causes pain to radiate to your hands and arms.
- Cervical spondylosis—Spondylosis is the abnormal breakdown or degeneration of bones and cartilage. When that happens in your neck, you can experience pain radiating to your arms and shoulders.
- Degenerative disc disease—As you age, the fibrous tissue in your spinal discs gradually deteriorates.
How Is Your Condition Diagnosed?
As a rule, your doctor will first conduct a thorough examination, looking at how different movements and positions impact your neck pain. Other tools may also be used, including MRI scans, X-rays, CT scans, bone density assessments, and electromyography (EMG) technology.
How Do You Treat Neck Pain?
Several non-invasive approaches can be effective in treating neck pain, including physical therapy, a progressive exercise program (to strengthen and stabilize muscles), and even the use of a collar or similar device to temporarily immobilize your neck. Such treatment may be combined with muscle relaxers, painkillers, and anti-inflammatory medications. If non-invasive strategies don’t provide relief, you may consider either the removal of a herniated or degenerative disc or a spinal fusion to improve spinal stability.