Neck pain is a common problem in Australia and according to the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, “Statistics show that around 10–15% of the population has neck pain at any given time. While the duration of symptoms varies from person to person, it is not uncommon for neck pain to be persistent. The pain intensity can range from mild to severe.”
For most people neck pain settles down fairly quickly, it usually takes several weeks but can vary between people. Some people still have problems with their neck even after the original problem has settled down. This is often because a lack of activity has caused stiffness and weakness of the neck muscles.
The first step to treating and managing neck pain is to rule out the possibility of any medical problem, such as infection or fracture (although these are rarely the cause). Dr Bailey may be able to determine the cause of your neck pain from your history and physical examination, but sometimes tests such as X-rays, MRI scans and CT scans are required to find the exact cause of your symptoms. These scans can assess the spine and be used to show disc problems, spinal cord problems or compression of your nerve roots.
Once serious medical conditions are ruled out, it is important to manage your neck pain in a conservative way. This is where your Chiropractor comes in. Chiropractors are fully qualified and registered health professionals who are highly trained to diagnose and/or treat conditions of the neuromuscular skeletal system. Dr Bailey can assess the condition of your neck and overall neuromuscular skeletal system. He will identify the cause of your neck pain, and then discuss with you your health goals and recommend a treatment program that will assist you in meeting these goals.
Structure of the neck
Your neck is an extremely complex and important structure. It is located at the top part of your spine; its main job is to support the weight of your head, which weighs, on average, about 5 kilograms. The neck must also allow the head to be able to move from side to side and up and down (and do these simultaneously). Your neck is actually made up of the seven interlocking vertebrae at the top of your spine. They are called the cervical vertebrae, numbered C1 through to C7. C1, also called the atlas, is the closest to your head, followed by C2, which is also called the axis. Between each vertebra in your neck (and spine) is a spongy tissue or cartilage called intervertebral discs; these discs are like shock absorbers for your spine, allowing the neck to move and give the neck its flexibility. Discs have a flat structure with a soft jelly-like centre. The vertebrae in your neck and spine are joined together by pairs of smaller joints called ‘facet’ joints and a mesh of connective tissue, called ligaments, holds the spine together.
With so many complex layers of muscle in your neck, which provide structural support and allow the movement of your neck, you can understand why your neck can cause you pain and discomfort. Not only on occasion, but in an ongoing fashion.
Causes of neck pain
There are many possible causes of neck pain and it is often difficult to work out which structure is the cause. This is why it is important to have your neck pain checked by a Chiropractor who is a fully qualified and registered health professional and highly trained to diagnose and/or treat conditions of the neuromuscular skeletal system.
All of the components in your neck have the potential to cause you pain if they are affected by injury or disease and sometimes it is more than one structure that is affected. It is important to remember, most people with neck pain do not have any significant damage to their spine such as fractures, it is more common for the pain comes from the muscles, ligaments and joints.
Some common causes of neck pain include:
- Muscle and ligament strains – if you do not regularly exercise or if you have pre-existing conditions, you can be more vulnerable to soft tissue injuries like sprains (stretching or tearing ligaments) and strains (injuring muscles or tendons). Stretching a ligament or muscle too much or too fast can result in a tear of the tissue. Excessive force and repetitive movements can also damage your muscles.
- Structural problems – caused by bad posture, osteoporosis and genetic conditions or scoliosis, can cause pain by putting stress on the different areas of your spine.
- Whip Lash – The most common cause of whip lash is a car accident, usually when your car is hit from behind while it is stopped or moving slowly. The person’s head is first thrown backwards and then when their body stops moving, the head is thrust forward. This type of injury can strain your neck muscles and cause ligaments in the neck to stretch or tear. Whiplash pain, which is usually worse with movement, is not always felt immediately; it can often take several days to develop. Neck pain caused by whip lash can also be accompanied by other symptoms such as muscle spasm, dizziness, headaches, nerve pain and shoulder pain.
- Osteoporosis – is a disease often seen in older people and characterised by loss of bone density and strength.
- Cervical Spondylosis – Is a degenerative condition of the neck and caused by normal ageing and wear and tear on the discs and vertebrae in the neck. It is also known as cervical osteoarthritis, and is most common in older people. Bone spurs often accompany this type of degeneration of the neck. Bone spurs, also known as osteophytes, are small growths of bone tissue which are formed when the cartilage covering bone wares away and allows one bone to rub on another bone. The spur is the body’s way of trying to protect the bone. The spur can sometimes pinch or press upon the nerve roots as they leave the spinal canal; this can cause symptoms such as neck pain and stiffness, which in most cases improves after rest. Spur pain may also radiate to the shoulders or between the shoulder blades, and when the spur places pressure on the nerve root , there may be numbness, pain or weakness in the arms.
- Cervical spinal canal stenosis – Degenerative changes in your neck can lead to narrowing of the canal in which your spinal cord sits. This is known as cervical spinal canal stenosis and occurs when pressure is placed on the spinal cord by narrowing of the canal. Neck pain caused by cervical spinal canal stenosis is usually worse when you are moving around and can often radiate into your arms or legs causing weakness to the arm or leg. It is possible for people with cervical spinal canal stenosis to have no symptoms at all. Occasionally, it may give rise to Lhermitte’s sign; this is an electric shock-like feeling that runs down your body when you bend your neck forward.
- Stress – one of the most common side effects of stress is increased muscle tension. This can lead to fatigue, stiffness and localised pain in your muscles and joints. Constantly tight muscles can create imbalances in your head position which can lead to misalignment of the neck.
More persistent neck pain may be associated with arthritis of the ‘facet’ joints and degeneration of the discs. However, people with this condition may not experience any pain. This is why it is important to have your spine regularly examined by your Chiropractor who is a fully qualified and registered health professional and is highly trained to diagnose and/or treat conditions of the neuromuscular skeletal system.
Lifestyle factors can contribute to back pain
Most back pain is prolonged by lifestyle factors including:
- lack of exercise
- being overweight or obese
- sitting for long periods
- poor head position
Prevention of neck pain
In most cases, back pain can be prevented by making regular visits to your chiropractor and a few lifestyle changes. Some suggestions include:
- Exercise regularly – this is important not only for your neck, but for your overall health and wellbeing. Exercise will also improve posture and increase muscle support of the spine. It is recommended we exercise for 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity. You should do some form of physical activity, no matter what your age, weight, health problems or abilities. Strive to be active every day in as many ways as possible, doing a range of physical activities incorporating fitness, strength, balance and flexibility. If you have stopped physical activity or are starting a new physical activity, you should always start at a level that is easily manageable and gradually build up the recommended amount, type and frequency of activity.
- Lift and carry safely – if you are picking up a heavy load, squat down, hold the object as close to your body as practical and lift by using your legs (keeping your back straight). Get some help from another person or use equipment (such as a trolley) if the load is too heavy to manage comfortably on your own.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight is also very important for your spinal health and overall wellbeing – if you are overweight or obese you are putting extra strain on your back and all of the other parts of your body.
- Consider your head position – always be aware of your neck and head position, especially in seated positions such as when driving or sitting at a desk for long periods of time. Don’t slump, keep your chin tucked in towards the neck and your shoulders back. Sit upright, don’t slouch or slump in your seat. See our work place assessment and car posture guides in The Ashgrove Spinal Centre Mobile App for help in this area.
- Change your mattress and/or pillows – surfaces that are too soft or too hard can aggravate a sore neck. If you are using more than one (1) pillow you need to change your pillows. See Dr Bailey for more information on mattresses he recommends and pillows we prescribe.
Treatment of neck pain
In the first couple of weeks after your onset of an episode of neck pain, our treatment plan will be focused on reducing pain and maintaining movement. Treatment options include:
- Manual therapy – as qualified health professional Dr Bailey may use spinal adjustments, manipulation, traction or other manual therapies to help relieve pain and correct your condition.
- Heat and cold therapy – hot and cold packs applied to the area of pain may be helpful in relieving pain temporarily.
- Relative rest – this may mean temporarily reducing activity such as sport and heavy lifting.
- Exercise – Dr Bailey can prescribe an individual exercise program for you. Your exercise may include stretching, mobility and strengthening exercises targeting the muscles stabilising and supporting your back.
Managing long-term back pain
Neck pain, if not managed correctly, can be an ongoing problem for many people. It is important to attend regular maintenance visits with your chiropractor and continue the exercise program you have been prescribed to strengthen and condition your back even after the pain has subsided.
Talk to Dr Bailey about what exercises you can do on an ongoing basis to maintain the health of your neck and for your general wellbeing. Recommended activities may include walking, swimming and cycling. It is important you learn about neck pain and play an active role in your own treatment.
The following services are relevant to this condition:
Chiropractic Spinal Decompression