What a Pain in the Neck

By Erin Higins, DPT
Jumpstart Physical Therapy 

Neck pain is a common complaint among adults and can be quite disabling at times. It can be caused by anything from muscles, joints, or nerves, and it can occur anywhere from the back of the head to the shoulders. This article will discuss the different causes of neck pain and some self-techniques to manage the pain.

Muscle pain: Neck pain related to muscles can be caused from many issues. One of the most common areas of pain is the upper trap, which is the muscle between the shoulders and neck. Upper trap pain is typically worsened by tilting your head to the opposite side of the pain or when shrugging your shoulders (when stretching or activating the muscle). The upper traps are also prone to trigger points. Another common area for tight muscles in your neck in is directly under your head. These muscles are called your suboccipitals. Tightness in these muscles frequently causes tension headaches, or headaches that start in the back of your head. The best way to ease muscle pain is to use heat, massage, and gentle stretching.

Joint pain: Joint pain in the neck is often mistaken for muscle pain. If a vertebra gets twisted slightly or doesn't move the way it should, it can pinch on the neighboring vertebrae and cause sharp pains on one side of your neck. The common difference between joint and muscle pain is that with joint pain, when you tilt your head to one side, you typically feel pain on the SAME side (as mentioned above, with muscle pain, you typically feel the pain on the OPPOSITE side when you tilt your head). The pain can often be felt radiating out to the side or down by your shoulder blades as well. Sometimes this pain will resolve itself after a day or two. Lingering joint pain often requires more specialized treatments from a physical therapist such as traction and joint mobilizations to improve the alignment of the vertebrae.

Nerve pain: Nerve pain in your neck is commonly related to joint pain. If the joint is pinched, you have a disc issue, or the space in your joints starts to narrow, the nerves in your neck can get pinched and cause severe pain. You will likely experience tingling, numbness, and pain down your arms (the length of the nerves). More severe nerve pain can even cause weakness or sensation loss in your arms. If you experience nerve pain, you should seek consultation from a physical therapist or your local MD in order to determine the specific cause and thus a more specific treatment regimen to address the pain.

With any cause of neck pain, the most beneficial treatment is to work on your posture. Standing or sitting with a slouched posture and forward head can pinch your vertebrae and nerves and/or put unnecessary stress on your muscles. Therefore, sitting up straight with your ears in line with your shoulders will help to keep your vertebrae in the proper alignment. Make sure that your office is ergonomically correct to avoid such postures.

Additionally, strengthening your back shoulder muscles with rows, lat pull downs, and I-W-T-Ys will help to keep your postural muscles strong - just make sure to keep your shoulders DOWN and BACK (instead of squeezing UP) in order to avoid shoulder and upper trap pain! If you have had neck pain that interferes with daily activities for more than a few weeks and massage, heat/ice, stretching, and postural strengthening has not worked, you may need to seek medical attention to determine the exact cause and specific/individual treatment regimen that is best for you. Don't let that pain in your neck bother you for too long!