What’s Causing My Neck Pain?
Neck pain is caused by many structures of the spine including the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, discs, vertebra (bones) and nerves. The most common causes of neck pain involve the muscles (neck strain) and ligaments (neck sprain). In most instances, neck pain as a result of sprain or strain will completely resolve within 4-6 weeks with rest, ice/heat, gentle exercise/physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication. Severe neck pain and pain persisting for more than several months may be a result of damage to the deeper structures of the spine including the bones, discs, joints and nerves.
The most common cause of neck pain is minor repetitive trauma over time. Poor body posture with a flexed neck while using a computer or electronic devices results in gradual deterioration of the spine and supporting structures. Whiplash injury caused by a sudden, violent head movement can aggravate a neck problem. Common causes of whiplash include motor vehicle accidents, falls, and sports injuries. Other causes of neck pain include osteoarthritis, tumor, and infection. Poor nutrition, obesity, and smoking can predispose to neck problems.
How Do I Detect a Neck Problem?
The most common symptom is neck pain. The pain may be sharp, stabbing, burning, aching, throbbing or an intense pressure. Neck pain worsens with neck movement. Neck problems commonly also cause headaches and pain into the shoulder blade, shoulder and down the arm. Pain from discs and joints of the upper neck will cause pain into the back of head and generalized headaches. Pain from the discs and joints of the lower neck will refer pain out in the trapezial and shoulder blade regions. If a nerve is irritated, then there could be referred pain into the shoulder blade and into the arm, sometimes all the way into the hand and fingers.
In addition to pain symptoms, a serious neck problem can cause spinal cord or nerve damage which can result in arm or leg weakness and numbness and difficulty walking. There could be loss of fine motor skills in the hands making it difficult to button shirts or write. Walking can become unsteady with increased risk of falling.
When Should I Consult a Doctor for a Neck Issue?
Most neck problems are minor and short lived and resolve within several days. It is recommended to consult a physician if you experience the following:
- severe neck/arm pain for over 72 hours
- moderate pain lasting more than 2 weeks that is not improved with rest, heat/ice, or over the counter medications such as Tylenol or aspirin products
- development of arm weakness or numbness accompanying neck and arm pain which can indicate more serious spinal cord or nerve damage
- progressively worsening neck or arm and leg symptoms with a history of cancer may indicate that the cancer has traveled to the cervical spine
- severe neck pain with fevers may indicate an infection in the cervical spine