Chronic neck pain can be overwhelming and debilitating. According to Harvard Medical School, doctors state that 7 out of 10 people will experience uncomfortable neck pain in their lifetime. While many cases will be resolved easily, others may become chronic and worsen over time.
The neck is also referred to as the cervical spine. This spine contains 24 bones, known as vertebrae. Of these 24 vertebrae, 7 make up the cervical spine. The spinal cord extends from the bottom of the brain to the lumbar area. Neck pain can begin at the base of the skull and extend down to the top of the shoulders. Some common causes of neck pain include incorrect posture, muscle strain, injury, bony abnormalities, and tumors. Neck pain can occur in a single spot or it can run down one or both arms.
While neck pain is uncomfortable, most cases are not serious. However, there are some symptoms that could indicate a more serious problem. Shooting pains down one arm or both and numbness in the hands may be a sign of a serious problem. Other serious problems may manifest themselves in the form of a headache and decreased head movement. Also, troubling is a loss of balance and uncontrolled bladder or bowel movements.These symptoms could indicate a serious condition such as cancer or meningitis.
Many people develop chronic neck pain through bad habits. In addition, the vertebrae undergo changes from wear and tear as we age. However, there are some things you can do to prevent neck pain. Since most neck pain is caused by muscle strain, avoid carrying heavy bags on one side of the body. Avoid tossing a heavy backpack or purse over just one shoulder. This puts a strain on your neck, which can over time cause pain. In addition, using good posture will help prevent pain from developing. Keep your head directly over your shoulders, especially when working on a computer. If necessary, adjust your chair at work to a level that does not cause neck strain. When working for a bit, take the time to stretch out your neck. This will help keep muscles loose and prevent pain. All it takes is a gentle stretch. Tilt your head to one side, hold for 15 seconds then release. Repeat on the other side at least 10 times, three times daily. The key is to stretch gently, never to the point of pain.
If neck pain has made your life difficult, it is time to see a doctor. Many people begin by seeing their primary care doctor. This doctor often does a general examination and prescribe a treatment plan. If you are no better, your primary care physician will refer you to a doctor for your pain. There are several types of doctors who could treat you, based on the primary care doctor’s findings. A rheumatologist specializes on the treatment of arthritic conditions. Some examples of these conditions are rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. People who are suspected of having pain with neurological causes may be referred to a neurologist. Those who have experienced traumatic injury may need to see an orthopedic surgeon.
Your neck pain doctor may run a series of tests to determine the cause of your pain. After taking a brief medical history, your doctor may order an X-ray. This is typically the first test ordered. It will show any bony changes or problems with your discs or vertebrae. If this does not reveal the answer, a CT scan may be performed. A CT scan provides your doctor with a more detailed view of your neck than an X-ray. Finally, an MRI is another type of test that is often used to diagnose difficult neck problems. This test uses magnetic imaging to provide a more accurate depiction of the structures of the spine and soft tissues.
In order to diagnose your problem, the doctor may order blood tests. This is done to rule out any infection that could be causing pain. Inflammatory conditions such as different types of arthritis may be detected this way.
An EMG or electromyography tests may be performed. This is performed if a pinched nerve is suspected to be the cause of pain.
Your doctor can prescribe pain or anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain. Injecting steroids into the small joints of the spine can help reduce neck pain in some people. If the pain is not managed by these methods, your doctor may prescribe alternative treatments. Physical therapy is often an effective way to help reduce neck pain. Therapists are skilled in using modalities such as hot packs, cold packs, and ultrasound to relieve pain. They can also use treatments such as TENS units, also known as transcutaneous electrical stimulation. This treatment relieves pain by transmitting electrical impulses through electrodes placed on the skin.
You can try self-treatment at home to relieve your chronic pain. Over the counter pain medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Exercises may also help increase flexibility, which eases the pain. Your doctor or physical therapist can prescribe a series of exercises that may help.
There are some non-traditional methods that may be beneficial in reducing pain. Massage therapy is often helpful in easing tension that causes pain. While there are no direct evidence massage therapy works, many people find it helpful.