The neck, sometimes referred to as the Cervical Spine, is a delicate and remarkable structure of interconnected vertebrae, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons – all of which work together to provide support while allowing a wide range of motion.
However, any of these anatomical structures can wear down or become injured, causing neck pain (we call it Axial Cervical Pain) and, possibly, pain that radiates down the arms (we call it Cervical Radicular Pain).
What Causes Neck Pain
There are many different causes for neck pain:
Acute neck pain usually involves a tear to a muscle or ligament in the neck. Trauma from sudden forced movement of the neck or head and rebound in the opposite direction (whiplash) can cause pain and soreness.
Neck pain that lasts or keeps coming back over a period of at least 3 months is considered chronic.
Aging and degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis (the wearing down of the joints) and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spaces in the spine) can lead to neck pain. Over time, stress and motion can lead to spinal disc degeneration, causing a herniated disc or pinched nerve.
A facet joint can become a source of pain if its protective cartilage starts to wear down or the joint capsule gets a tear. As the joint degenerates, bone spurs grow, increasing inflammation and stiffness.
These degenerative changes to discs and facet joints in the cervical spine can cause a nerve root to become compressed which can result in cervical radiculopathy symptoms of pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness to radiate down the arm.
Neck Pain Diagnosis
The doctors will diagnose your neck pain with a physical exam and medical history, they will also check your muscle strength and reflexes. To diagnose the cause of the pain, your doctor may use imaging tests such as X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). These tests can show damage and other issues in the bones and surrounding tissues in your neck.
Neck Pain Treatments
After making the correct diagnosis, treatment for neck pain varies depending on the cause. It aims to relieve pain and improve function. Some of these treatments include:
- Medications – including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease pain and inflammation and muscle relaxants to help the healing process.
- Physical therapy (exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons in the neck).
- Facet joint injections of Medial nerve blocks – to help alleviate the pain from the inflamed joints.
- Radiofrequency ablation (or Nerve ablation) – to provide longer pain relief.
- Epidural Steroid injections near the nerve roots – to help relieve pain and inflammation.
- Finally, If the injury is advanced – your doctor may recommend surgery to repair compressed or damaged spinal disks or fuse some vertebrae in the spine.