What can cause neck pain?
Neck pain is a very common problem affecting around 2 out of 3 people at some point in their life. It’s generally not serious, normally being due to poor posture and minor strains of the muscles, ligaments, or joints. Anyone can get neck pain but it seems to affect women more often than men.
Whiplash is an injury worth noting in particular as it’s fairly common and has been rising in incidence rates over the years. It happens when the head and neck is suddenly jolted forwards and backwards; most commonly in a road traffic accident. Whiplash can lead to various problems later on if not treated effectively with manual therapy and specific exercises. Symptoms may vary from simple neck pain and stiffness to headaches, dizziness, and over time lead to chronic pain. The general collective term for these are known as ‘whiplash associated disorder’. Even a very minor accident, for example a bump in the parking lot can be enough to cause whiplash, so it’s worth getting it checked out after.
In general, pain sources in the neck could be the muscles, joints, ligaments or nerves. The discs in between the cervical vertebra (neck bones) can also be a cause of pain due to the inflammation and compression they can put on structures around them including the nerves and ligaments. The nerves can be pain sources when compressed in certain areas of the neck and can refer pain down the shoulder, arm and hands. For example compression of the nerve coming from the C5/6 level may cause pain in the upper arm, outer forearm and down to the thumb. If compressed enough it can cause weakness of the biceps and other muscles of the arm and forearm.
There are various ways of treating the pain sources but it’s important to identify and understand why they became painful in the first place. Was it a straight forward strain from a hit, jolt or fall? Is your posture putting increased tension for long periods of time on your muscles? Do you have tightness and restriction in your upper back causing your neck to take more strain? Are you doing an aggravating repetitive movement throughout the day?
Pain killers will only give short term relief so you should assess your posture to see if you’re putting your neck under extra strain. A simple way to check your posture is to get someone to take a photo of you standing to your side. Check that the back of your ear aligns with your outer shoulders and your outer hip joints, which then should align with your outer ankles. If you can draw a straight line from these points, then at least from a front to back, or back to front point of view, your body is aligned well.
If these don’t line up, then don’t worry, it doesn’t mean anything serious, it just means that some parts of your body may be tight, some may be a little weak and some may be working too hard.
How can I reduce my neck pain?
Seeing a professional will help give you an accurate diagnosis but a common pattern, especially for those stuck behind a desk most of the day is something called Upper Cross Syndrome. Sounds a little dramatic but its basically tight chest, weak back, tight upper neck muscles, and weak deep neck muscles. Addressing these with stretches and exercises wont fix everyone but they will help a lot of people. If your posture didn’t line up in the first test, you might notice a pattern like this:
Compared to the ‘ideal’ picture in the above section the 5 points have moved away from the central plum line. This is a pretty common pattern and shows a posture that can put strain on the neck. We don’t have to get a ‘perfect’ posture, just one that’s optimal for you and will let your body be more comfortable.
Try these simple exercises to help your neck pain:
Chest stretch 2x 15 second holds
Shoulder Scapula squeeze 5×5 second holds
Head turns 2 x 30 turns
Chin tuck neck flexion 5×5 seconds
(gently hold your chin tucked in while resting your head on a rolled up towel)
Repeat these 2-3 times a day in a pain free manner. Hopefully they’ll reduce your neck pain and help you manage your condition. If pain persists then don’t hesitate to seek professional help.