Desk work, texting, laptop use and even sleeping in the wrong position – there are many ways to develop neck pain, and it is exactly that – a pain in the neck. Thankfully our guide to neck pain can educate and help you to manage your symptoms.
Pain in the neck is experienced by people of all ages and it is experienced in different ways. Symptoms can be felt in the neck but extend to the head and sometimes down into the arms.
Knowing how to care for your neck and keep it healthy will help to prevent you from any issues!
This is the term for the bones of the neck. There are seven bones in total and they perform several roles within the neck. The neck is designed with smaller vertebra at the top which increase in size as they go down. The upper vertebrae allow for more rotation of the neck and the lower vertebrae allow for more flexion and extension of the neck. The design of the neck vertebrae is robust to protect the spinal cord, cerebellum and nerve structures. Each vertebra has a prominence at the back called a spinous process – the most prominent one is C7 and this is also the point where the neck ends and the upper back begins. Most people will have a more prominent spinous process here as it sticks out further than others. When this becomes more exaggerated it can also be known as a dowagers hump and this normal in most humans.
Spinal discs are the firm but flexible fibrocartilage components of the spine which allow for the neck to move in different directions. They protect the neck by helping to absorb shock and also act as a ligament-like attachment between each vertebra. At the centre of the disc lies a softer jelly-like centre called a nucleus pulposis which helps the spine to move in different directions with the rest of the disc being much firmer.
There are many muscles in the neck which attach from the base of the skull and jaw and extend down towards the shoulder girdle and upper back. Larger muscles include the trapezius which starts at the upper back and attaches on to the base of the skull (occiput) and then there are muscles such as the levator scapula which is a small strap-like muscle attaching from the shoulder blade up to the base of the skull. Scalenes can also have a major role in neck pain – they sit on the side of the neck and attach on to the first ribs.
The supply of function to our head, face, neck and upper limbs are from the nerves which sit in the neck area. The nerve roots are the beginnings of the nerves which exit the spinal cord and sit in between the vertebrae an exit through facet joints. The nerves then extend to their destinations and the furthest being the hands. Each cervical nerve innervates and provides feeling (sensation) and movement (motor function) to both sides of a corresponding part of the upper body.
There can be a plethora of symptoms related to the neck which you may experience when you have neck pain. Let’s begin with the most obvious which will be pain!
Depending on which structures are sore, the pain can vary from an ache to a more intense sharp pain.
If you have more of a muscular form of neck pain you may find that the area in which you experience your symptoms is more widespread – ranging from the back of your head, down towards your upper back.
Pain that emanates from the joints of the neck may be more specific and you may be able to feel it just in a certain point – this pain tends to be more intense.
These are a secondary symptom of neck pain and they can be medically named as cervicogenic headaches which mean headaches that are caused by the cervical spine.
Restriction of the neck and muscle tension causes the head to become painful due to tension in the muscles that attach on to the skull from the neck and shoulders.
Loss of neck movement is common
This has many different terms and if the loss of movement is accompanied by stiffness then it may be termed as torticollis. If there is a loss of side to side movement this is usually down to the smaller joints of the neck not working efficiently.
Any of the neck’s structures can cause loss of movement and stiffness – typically it should improve in under 2-4 weeks. If you follow a rehab plan and it doesn’t, then you may need to see a health professional for further opinion.
Referred nerve symptoms
As mentioned previously – the nerves that supply your upper limbs originate from between the joints in your neck. If you have an aggravated, stiff, painful neck, there is a chance you could develop nerve pain. The nerve pain will extend from your neck and can go as far as your fingertips.
This is a term for osteoarthritis of the neck. As we age we suffer a reduction in the smooth surfaces of our joints and cartilage. This can make the movement of the neck more difficult and painful. This type of problem typically occurs in small periods where symptoms can flare and become worse but will settle with the appropriate action.
Postural and positional cause
This is becoming a big problem, especially in today’s digital world. The longer we look down at our technology the more we compress the facet joints of the neck and place pressure on the spinal discs. Looking down isn’t necessarily bad but it is the time we look down for that can be particularly damaging.
Consider this when using your phone or tablet but also at when using a laptop or desktop computer – ensure you have the right setup for your workstation to bring your screen to the right level.
Facet Joint Dysfunction
The small joints at the side of the neck are extremely important for your neck being functional and pain-free. The facet joints help to rotate your neck and extend the neck effectively – they do not like being place in flexion (looking down) for long periods.
If these joints become aggravated you will find rotational movements and extension of the neck difficult and quite painful.
Common in car crash type injuries but not limited to motor vehicle-related accidents. Whiplash refers to the sudden jerking of the head and movement forward.
Because all of our vital structures live in our head and neck and we rely on these things to keep us alive – our body then goes into overdrive to protect them if we are involved in an accident which places stress upon the head and neck.
The result is on average a 6-8 week period of pain, stiffness, and reduced movement of the neck. Following a correct physiotherapy, pain relief and rehab regime will help you to recover back to normal.
It is simply an overprotective measure our body enforces in order to keep us alive during episodes of trauma.
Put simply, this is a headache which is caused by the structures of the neck. Developing tension or stiffness in the neck will lead to reduced movement of the neck and its tissues and if the neck isn’t functioning correctly the symptoms will extend into the head. Keep your neck mobile to avoid a headache!
Conditioning of the neck is not commonplace in the general population. If you are a professional athlete such as boxer of weight lifter you may be regularly training your neck. However, if you don’t exercise your neck and work in a repetitive job role which places the neck under strain you may find your neck is becoming deconditioned.
Reduced strength in any area of the body causes reduced function and raises the chances of you developing pain. See our exercise section to get started with basic neck strengthening.
Magnesium is a vital mineral required for our bodies function, commonly people are lacking this in their diets. Naturally, we can eat foods such as beans, leafy greens and dark chocolate and nuts which will help us to improve our magnesium intake. A lack of magnesium can also cause inflammation, one of the most common causes of neck pain
Ginger and turmeric are both natural spices which have anti-inflammatory properties. Their popularity in research for improving inflammation has increased in recent years. Again the most common way to consume these spices is in our food but it is typically shown that higher doses have a better effect.
To get a higher dosage you may want to look at available supplements out there which come in the forms of tablets, powders, tea and even tinctures.
CBD – is the non-psychoactive element of cannabis which is proving extremely popular and effective for a range of conditions. This is due to our bodies having cannabidiol receptors in different parts of our body and brain.
Its uses include reducing anxiety and improving sleep but its most popular use has been with pain and inflammation reduction. There are several options available for CBD and it can be taken orally with tea, edible sweets and tinctures.
Balms which can be rubbed directly on to the neck are available and if you are a vape pen user, liquids infused with CBD can be a great option for effective neck pain relief.
Exercise is an extremely important part of getting your neck better. This is because the cervical spine is made up of a series of small, intricate joints which need to be mobilised to help them remain well lubricated. Consequently, they reduce in pain and ultimately move easier.
The focus of the exercises is to mobilise the neck, stretch the tissues and finally strengthen to help protect the neck. All exercises are simple and do not require any equipment for the most part.
The key to keeping your neck right is varied movement, not spending too long in the same position and performing different forms of exercise.
Active range of movement exercises
The most basic thing you can do for your neck is to move it. Often with neck pain, we do not move the neck due to pain and stiffness and our immediate reaction is to stop moving as it hurts.
The discomfort you are experiencing is not damaging and movement will repair it. Move your neck backwards into extension, forwards, rotation as far as possible and side bending of the neck. If you meet any discomfort – move into it slightly and then repeat the movement.
Once you have mobilised the neck and improved the movement it is important to stretch neck and shoulder muscles to reduce any tension which may be affecting your neck movement.
Stretching the neck is simple – follow the same steps as the first exercise but use your hand to add overpressure. Take the neck to its most comfortable limit then hold against the resistance for a minimum of 20 seconds.
Supine Neck Mobility
This exercise acts as a great progression from the most basic exercises. Changing your position when moving your neck is key – lying down is perfect as it uses gravity to relax your neck and allows the joints to gain full movement.
Lie over the edge of your bed and allow your neck to relax and extend over the edge of the bed – unsupported and move your neck in extension, rotation and flexion. You may wish to wait until your neck has reduced in pain before trying this.
Isometric neck holds
This exercise can be done at any time. Isometric holds are still muscle contractions which help to reduce pain and improve strength. They are simple to perform. They should be performed for every direction your neck moves in.
Simply place your hand against your head and push the head into the hand and resist for 5-10 seconds. There may be some tension during this but that is the desired effect.
That’s our guide to neck pain complete! Remember to keep a good posture, avoid looking down for long periods and mobilise, stretch and strengthen the neck to ensure you remain pain-free.