Neck pain is a common ailment that affects at least 15% of humans every year. The condition is actually so common that around half of the world’s population is estimated to suffer from some kind of neck pain condition over their lifetime. Neck pain is also the second most commonly reported musculoskeletal issue in the US, accounting for around 1.3% of all hospital and physician visits in the country. The complex structure of the neck makes it prone to repeated stress, accidental trauma, and minor injuries over years. Over the years, it has been observed that the number of people visiting the doctor and using onsite or online physical therapy for neck pain has only kept increasing.
The Neck Explained
The neck is a complex structure of bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, and tendons. Also known as the cervical spine, the neck can crudely be referred to as the specific portion of the body that is located between the skull and the upper back. The neck basically has a well-build network of bones, muscles and ligaments that allows the flexible mobility of the head. The three basic functions of the neck are as follows:
- Protecting the spinal cord
- Facilitating the flow of blood to the brain
- Supporting the head and its forward, backward, and sideways movement
What Can Cause Neck Pain?
A variety of issues can emerge at the neck because of its complex and multi-functional design. From internal tissue and ligament damages due to stress and aging to nerve and trauma injuries, the neck can be injured by many factors. Many of these injuries can pain around the neck. However, beyond neck injuries, in some cases, other conditions like throat cancer or spinal tumor too can cause neck pain. If the symptoms of neck pain persist for more than a week or interfere with routine activities like sleeping, the patient is usually advised to consult the physician.
Based on the duration of the pain, the different types of neck pain conditions are categorized as follows:
- Acute. Pain that lasts less than 4 weeks
- Subacute. Pain that lasts 4 to 12 weeks
- Chronic. Pain that lasts 3 or more months
There can be different kinds of neck pain, depending upon the nature of the condition. Some neck pain can be sharp and centered around a specific spot, while others can feel less intense but also spread across different regions, including outside the neck area. In a few cases, the pain can even radiate up to the head and can cause headaches. In a few conditions, it can be accompanied by muscle spasms in the neck, upper back, or around the shoulder blade. In some severe cases, a shock-like pain or tingling may radiate down into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand.
Most Common Neck Pain Conditions
Some of the most common neck pain conditions are mentioned below:
- Neck sprain or strain: A sprain can happen when ligaments in the neck are torn. Neck sprains and strains are caused by damages to the ligaments, tendons, and muscles of the neck, often by sudden injury or accidents.
- Stiff muscles and tendons:Stiff neck is the result of the neck being in a relatively stationary state over an extended period of time. For example, using computers on a desk for several hours every day, or sleeping in the same position overnight can cause still muscles and tendons.
- Herniated disc: Herniated disc is caused by the leaking or bulging of the spinal disc because of wear and tear or accidental trauma.
- Pinched nerve: Pinched nerves are caused by the pushing of bones, tissues or tendons against the nerves, which can cause referred pain across different parts of the body.
- Fractured cervical spine: – Fractures in the bones within the cervical spine can cause severe pain in the neck and requires immediate medical attention.
- Muscle strains:Overuse of the neck muscles, often by staying in stationary poses like in front of the computer, or reading a book while at bed can cause muscle strains. Most muscle strains can be treated at home or can work with a simple online therapy for neck pain.
- Worn joints: With age, it’s natural for the neck joints to wear down. Conditions like Osteoarthritis can make the condition deteriorate even faster. In some conditions, the bone spurs can also form in the body than further decrease the motion of the joint and bring pain.
- Nerve compression: Conditions like herniated discs and bone spurs can pinch the nerves emerging from the spinal cord that can bring pain, which can also become chronic in the long run.
- Injuries: The structure of the neck as a flexible cushioning part of the upper body makes it susceptible to various kind of trauma injuries from impacts to the upper body, particularly the head. Whiplash injury is fairly common in vehicle accidents that can damage the soft tissues of the neck. Most trauma injuries to the neck need to be assessed by the physician at the soonest, as some injuries can even prove fatal.
- Specific diseases: Some specific diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, are often linked to neck pain
Risk Factors for Developing Neck Pain
Neck pain is a fairly common musculoskeletal condition, and it can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. However, some neck pain conditions affect certain population groups a lot more than others. Based on the observations of neck injury incidences, the following population are considered to be at the highest risk of developing neck pain:
- People above 60: With aging, the strength of the neck muscles and bones tends to decrease, which makes the neck more prone to damages.
- History of neck problems: Up to 50% of people with a case of neck pain in the past report a minor or major recurrence of neck pain within a year.
- Poor posture: People who often don’t maintain a healthy posture while doing their daily tasks are prone to developing some kind of neck or other musculoskeletal problem. Usually, people engaging themselves in a relatively sedentary lifestyle are affected by postural injuries.
- Smoking: Regular smokers are at significant risk of developing several musculoskeletal conditions, including neck issues. In fact, regular coughing in smokers, backed by weakening neck muscles, can bring traumatic injuries as well.
- Labor-intensive occupation: People involved in some labor-intensive occupations like porters and farmers are prone to developing neck issues, primarily because of overuse and regular tissue damage.
- Female sex: An average female is around 25% more likely to develop some kind of neck problems, compared to the average male.
- Mental stress and depression: Some undiagnosed neck pain conditions are attributed to workplace stress and depression conditions.
Physical Therapy for Neck Pain Relief
Physical therapy is often used as a first-line treatment for treating neck pain. Many common neck pain and injury conditions are directly referred to the physical therapist by the physician for treatment along with a medication regime. However, for more serious conditions, physical therapy is employed along with a wide combination of treatments, or in rare cases, it may not even be employed at all. Depending on the condition of the pain and injury, the specific physical therapy methods and exercises can vary from one person to another.
The physical therapist can use onsite or online physical therapy for neck pain to address the following goals:
- Reduction of pain and stiffness
- Improvement of motion range of the head and the neck
- Strengthening of the neck
- Developing strategies to prevent recurrence of the pain
- Improving neck posture and function for daily movements