My neck hurts! What can I do?
In collaboration with Samuel Blanchette, physiotherapist, FCAMPT
It's not easy living with neck pain. Whether it’s due to an accident or pain that has gradually arisen, it can be a real “pain in the neck.” To treat it, the cause needs to be identified. But prevention is an even better option!
Is it normal to have neck pain?
In contrast to its size, the neck plays a big role. In addition to allowing our heads to turn, the neck contains the arteries that supply blood to our brains. Food and air pass through the neck, and moreover, it protects our spinal cord, the precious pathway for our nerve impulses. It’s not surprising then that when our neck hurts, it rapidly becomes a problem!
In Canada, 2.7% to 4.6% of people are estimated to suffer from incapacitating neck pain.1,2 We can divide neck pain into two major categories:
1. Mechanical neck pain is by far the most common. This pain is felt somewhere between the base of the skull and the shoulders. It makes doing certain movements or activities difficult. There’s no obvious injury, such as a fracture, to explain the pain.
2. Infections or neurological conditions that cause neck pain are more worrisome. Fortunately, they are much less frequent. In these cases, pain is caused by a bacterial or viral infection or by damage to the nervous system.
Generally, the first category of neck pain is not considered a medical emergency even if the symptoms interfere with performing daily activities. However, if the symptoms describe below are also present, the second category may be the cause, and you should promptly consult a physician.
Symptoms requiring prompt or urgent medical attention:
- High fever with neck pain and stiffness
- Radiating pain, numbness, loss of muscular strength and sensitivity in your limbs
- Acute sensory disturbance (vision, auditory, etc.)
- Severely disturbed general condition
Why do I have pain?
In certain rare cases, the pain is caused by cancer, birth defects, autoimmune diseases, etc. But in general, neck pain is due to bad posture over a prolonged period. In other words, the culprits are extension or flexion of the neck over long periods or protraction, which is a combination of these two movements. Texting, staring at a screen with bad posture and the head bent forward or painting a ceiling are all good examples.
Mechanical pain can also be triggered if you’ve had previous neck or head injuries. For example, a car accident, a concussion or just a fall. These events can damage neck joints and weaken muscles. When combined with perpetual bad posture, it’s a perfect storm for neck pain.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
If you know the cause and mechanics of the pain, you already know a lot about how to treat it. But it’s preferable to adopt good habits even before pain develops. Here some tips on this:
- Adopt good postural hygiene for a start. Whether you are seated or standing, keep your lower and middle back straight. Then look toward the horizon with the chin tucked in rather than stuck out.
- Do muscle-strengthening exercises for your neck, back and shoulder blades to treat mechanical neck pain.4 Many studies attest to their effectiveness. Strengthening muscles can also prevent neck pain and the risk of osteoporosis.
- Improve your lifestyle habits. Be physically active and follow a healthy diet to reduce risks due to being overweight.
Excess weight increases the load on joints and affects posture. This contributes to the risk of musculoskeletal pain, including neck pain.
Many healthcare professionals such as physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths can guide us in treating mechanical neck pain. They can devise a customized treatment plan that includes manual treatment.
The neck is an amazing organ, given its complex structure and the mobility it affords. Given its numerous and demanding roles, we need to look after it. It pays to practise good postural hygiene, be physically active and adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Musculoskeletal health experts, such as physiotherapists, can help you in treating and preventing neck pain. If fever or other systemic or neurological symptoms are present with your neck pain, consult your doctor.