What Is Neck Pain?
Neck pain is a very common affliction. A 2015 study in Mayo Clinic Procedures estimated that more than 30 percent of people have neck pain at any given time, and it is the fourth leading cause of disability.
The neck is also known as the cervical spine. It is made of seven bones called vertebrae, which house the spinal cord, nerves and fibrocartilage discs that act as shock absorbers. The vertebrae of the neck are numbered C1 through C7.
There are many potential causes of neck pain. It can stem from acute injury, overuse or chronic conditions. Some of these include:
- Carrying a heavy backpack or purse
- Cervical spondylosis–a general term for degeneration of the intervertebral discs
- Cervical strain–an injury to muscles around the neck
- Herniated disc
- Prolonged computer use
- Rheumatoid arthritis–an inflammatory condition that causes joint pain
- Spinal stenosis
- Whiplash–a violent back-and-forth movement of the head, often the result of a car accident
Aside from pain, symptoms may vary based on the root cause. If there is nerve damage, the pain may radiate down one arm, and there may be weakness, tingling or muscle loss as well. Some conditions, like meningitis, cause headache in addition to neck pain. Severe cases of spinal stenosis or spinal cord compression may cause urinary or bowel incontinence.
Diagnosing a cause of neck pain is important because the cause will inform the treatment. The doctor will usually use a medical history and physical examination to begin narrowing down the diagnosis, and will want to know about chronic conditions, accidents or other trauma events and a list of symptoms. In addition, the doctor will check the ability to move the neck in different directions and examine the muscles around the neck and, if necessary, strength in the limbs and extremities.
If tests are necessary, both imaging studies and lab tests may be done. Blood tests can determine the presence of chemicals that indicate inflammation, which may be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, or confirm whether any illness-causing bacteria are growing.
X-rays can show deformities of the vertebral bones, while magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans may demonstrate issues with soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, cartilage, intervertebral discs, nerves and the spinal cord, as well as bone fractures.
Treatment of neck pain will depend on the root cause, but there are many conservative methods for managing symptoms. These include:
- Anti-inflammatories and pain medication
- Exercises and physical therapy to help loosen up the neck
- Posture improvement
If the neck pain is caused by severe stenosis, surgery may help. Otherwise, surgery is not often used to relieve neck pain.
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