Physical therapy for neck pain is touted as one of the best remedies for the condition. Neck pain is an extremely common condition that reduces quality of life significantly. Millions of people experience neck pain every year. How much do we know about neck pain and the different ways of treating it? This article will shed light on the scope of this problem, and offer some potential solutions to help manage your neck pain.
What is neck pain?
Neck pain is a feeling of unpleasantness, tightness or strain in the neck area. It is an extremely common disorder, with over 30% of the general population affected every year (R). It is also the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide. Neck pain has many symptoms and causes. Some of these can be severe but most resolve after a few days. Neck pain that resolves quickly is known as acute neck pain. However neck pain can also be long-term, lasting for over three months. This is known as chronic neck pain.
There are many ways that we can prevent neck pain from occurring. There are also many treatments and therapies for neck pain. These will be discussed more in detail but range from stretching and massaging to medication. Neck pain can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience. However, we hope to provide the resources and information to help you manage and prevent this kind of pain as best as possible.
Interestingly, neck pain can develop on many different time courses. The symptoms described below can occur spontaneously and randomly, at any given point during the day or night. They might also develop slowly and gradually, building in intensity. Often, these symptoms appear immediately after an accident or an injury, and sometimes they might even develop a few hours or days after an incident. What do these symptoms look like?
General discomfort of the neck
The symptoms of neck pain are mostly mild but can cause discomfort. One of the most common symptoms is a stiff neck. This is felt as a restriction in neck movement, particularly when trying to rotate your head side to side. Neck pain might also be more sharp and stabbing, or sometimes more dull and throbbing. Each of these kinds of pain will likely have different causes, which will be discussed further.
Neck pain can also cause a variety of symptoms that are not immediately felt in the neck region.
The relationship between neck pain and headaches is well understood. In fact, one study found that people who experienced primary headaches were much more likely to experience neck pain than those who did not have these headaches (R). The one year prevalence of neck pain in those with the headaches was a whopping 68.4% higher than in those without them (R). This was true also of migraine and tension-type headaches.
Many people who experience neck pain also have difficulty sleeping. Neck pain and sleep issues are deeply intertwined. Waking up with a stiff or sore neck from sleeping in an unnatural position is not an uncommon experience. There are many products on the market that claim to improve sleeping posture and reduce sleep-related stiffness and soreness. However, the effectiveness of these products is variable and depends mostly on your individual preferences. You should consult your doctor when deciding whether one of these products might be appropriate for you.
When to see your doctor
Sometimes neck pain can be accompanied by symptoms that hint at a more severe cause. If you experience any of the following symptoms, or if your pain does not resolve itself within a few days, you should consult your doctor for a more thorough examination.
Some potentially serious symptoms include:
- A tingling, pins-and-needles sensation in your upper limbs
- Numbness in the fingers and hands, leading to difficulty picking up and gripping objects.
- Dizziness or problems with balance
- Loss of voluntary bladder control
- Chronic fatigue or tiredness
- Crippling pain the head or neck region
The presence of one or more of these symptoms does not automatically mean you have a life-threatening condition. However, these symptoms are telltale signs that something more serious is causing your neck pain.
There are many things that might cause neck pain. Broadly, these causes can be separated into three categories: physical, psychological and environmental causes. If you’re having a hard time figuring out where your neck pain might be coming from, the information below might shed some light.
The physical causes of neck pain are by far the most numerous. At the root of most pains, there is something abnormal going on in a particular area of the body. This is especially true of neck pain. It is important to note that most neck pain will not be the result of conditions as serious as these, and should pass after a few days. That being said, let’s look at some of the underlying conditions that might cause neck pain.
Myofascial pain syndrome
This is a chronic pain disorder of the muscles. Individuals with this disorder have sensitive points in their muscles, or trigger points. When pressure is applied to these areas, pain is felt in regions of the body that might not be close to the location of these trigger points themselves. This condition is treated with physiotherapy, medication and relaxation exercises.
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes a general, widespread muscle tenderness. This condition is often associated with fatigue, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, and altered memory. You can treat fibromyalgia with physical and cognitive therapy, and also by reducing stress and anxiety.
Cervical Spondylosis is a general term given to the wear and tear of the spine over long periods of time. As you age, your joints and cartilage become worn down. Eventually, a lot of the material that is cushioning your joints has deteriorated, and you might start to feel pain in these areas. There are many different subtypes of this condition, for example:
- Cervical osteoarthritis: when the cartilage of the cervical facet joint wears down. The cervical facet joints are located on the back of the neck joints. Cervical osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of chronic neck pain.
- Cervical herniated disc: when the intervertebral discs, between the vertebrae of the spine, begin to wear down. This may lead fluid leakage and inflammation, and is very painful.
- Cervical degenerative disc disease: the general term for the breakdown of intervertebral discs. This happens when these discs begin to dehydrate and lose their ability to cushion.
Spinal tumors can cause neck pain. Spinal tumors are either primary or secondary. Primary spinal tumors originate and grow in the spine and neck region. Secondary spinal tumors have found their way into this region by metastasis. This happens when cancer spreads from one part of the body to another. Most spinal tumors are formed this way; one study found that 90% of spinal tumors were metastases (R).
A pinched nerve is when one of your spinal nerves is being compressed by some other force. This creates an uncomfortable sensation of pain. Potential causes of pinched nerves include bone spurs, tumors, and herniated discs.
It is important to remember that there are many other physical conditions that might cause neck pain. The ones described above only scratch the surface. If you are unsure about whether your neck pain is acute or the result of one of these more serious conditions, consult your doctor for more information.
Sometimes neck pain can be the result of psychological influences. There is a general consensus that stress and anxiety are two factors closely linked to neck pain. Indeed, a review of the literature found that stress, anxiety, mood, emotions and general cognitive function were all significant factors in the experience of chronic and acute neck pain (R).
We do not always interact with our environment in healthy ways. Sometimes, we develop unhealthy habits or behaviors with other people and the environment around us. This is another potential cause of neck pain.
If we spend all day hunched over at a desk, we have a much greater chance of developing neck pain. Therefore, we should pay careful attention to our work environment. Do you take breaks to stretch? Are your desk chair and workspace comfortable and well-sized? Are you mindful of how you sit, stretch, exercise and eat?
This applies also to those who enjoy hobbies with large amounts of sitting down. People who play video games need to be aware of the risks of poor posture, as does anyone spending large amounts of time at a computer or desk.
We tend to think of injuries as freak accidents, or random, unfortunate events. Most of the time this is the case. But we might ask ourselves whether we are engaging in behaviors that make these events more likely. For example, reckless driving is an entirely preventable cause of serious physical trauma, to yourself and others. Perhaps you choose to ride your bicycle at night, without any headlights? If we can reduce the number of ways we put ourselves at risk, the chances of us being involved in one of these freak accidents is lowered.
Studies have shown that smoking damages the cervical discs of your neck (R). This can lead to reduced shock absorption and a greater incidence of neck pain.
Frequent long-haul flyers should be especially careful of their posture to avoid neck pain. Those who work in manual labor should exercise the correct form when moving heavy weight. Professional athletes should be aware of stretches and exercises to reduce the risk of neck injury. If you are experiencing neck pain, you might want to ask yourself whether the demands of your job are in any way related.
Neck pain prevention
Now that we know some of the causes of neck pain, what can we do to prevent it?
Get up and stretch at least once every hour. Change your seated position and make sure you get the blood flowing to your limbs. Also make sure that your posture is correct, keeping a straight spine without hunching over.
Use the correct form when lifting
When lifting heavy objects, use the correct form. Make sure that the weight of the load is not being carried by your back. Instead, lift using your legs and keep your back straight and your core tense. Hold the object close to your core. This means you are not applying unnatural forces to any parts of your body.
Try to sleep in a position that best caters to your neck. You should aim to align your head and neck with the rest of your body when you are asleep. This means your pillow should be rested under your neck as you sleep on your back. While sleeping on your side is common, sleeping on your back with a small pillow does a better job of aligning your head and neck.
Modify your workspace
Ensure that your computer is as close to eye level as possible so you are not hunching. Make sure your chair encourages good posture. Change the height of your desk to allow for good posture also. Avoid working on couches or beds that might encourage slouching and hunching.
Take care of your body
Ensure that you are eating healthy and drinking plenty of water. Aim to sleep at least 7 hours a night, with 8 being desirable. Stretch well before any physical exercise. Aim to engage in some sort of physical activity everyday. Yoga and Pilates are highly recommended to maintain flexibility and good posture.
Physical therapy for neck pain
Sometimes neck pain cannot be prevented, and must be treated instead. There are many different ways to treat neck pain through physical therapy.
Physical therapy can either be passive or active. During passive physical therapy, the patient is unmoving and some form of treatment is applied to them by a third party. Let’s look at some examples of passive physical therapy for neck pain.
Passive physical therapy for neck pain
Electrodes are attached to the affected areas and a current is run through the muscles of the body. This causes contraction and relaxation of these muscles. Patients will feel a tingling or buzzing sensation, which can be mildly unpleasant at first and takes some getting used to. Electrotherapy is reported to repair and promote the growth of muscles. However, electrotherapy has not been proven to help neck pain. Indeed, one review found that across most studies, electrotherapy did not significantly improve neck pain versus a placebo (R).
A cooling gel is applied to the affected area and ultrasound waves are passed through a device to the muscles. The procedure does not produce any major sensation, other than maybe a mild warming of the deep tissues. Again, the effectiveness of ultrasound for neck pain is debated.
Active physical therapy for neck pain
During active physical therapy for neck pain, the patient is engaging in some form of activity instead of being a passive recipient of treatment. This activity can include:
- Neck and back strengthening exercises
- Dynamic stretching
- Yoga or Pilates
- Aerobic exercise, such as walking or running
The aim of these activities is to give the patient the ability to prevent their own neck pain. The goals of physical therapy for neck pain are to:
- Strengthen the muscles of the neck, back and abdomen. This should improve posture.
- Improve flexibility and rotational range of motion. This should hopefully reduce the chances of injury.
- Maintain a level of fitness.
- Establish a mind-body connection. Being aware of your body and how you are feeling is a good way to stay on top of your physical health.
Physical therapy is a well established way to reduce the impact of neck pain. Whether it be active or passive, these physical therapy activities should provide some form of relief. Your doctor should inform you which of these forms of therapy are appropriate.
Neck pain and CareClinic
CareClinic is a one-stop app for tracking your mental, physical and emotional health. The features of CareClinic are well suited to someone dealing with chronic neck pain, or chronic pain in general. How can CareClinic help you manage your neck pain?
CareClinic’s symptom tracking allows you to register neck pain symptoms that you might be feeling. These include general neck pain, stiffness in neck, weakness in neck, and any unusual clicking when moving the neck. You are able to input when and for how long you felt these symptoms, as well as how intense or painful these symptoms were. This is particularly useful when paired with CareClinic’s other features such as activity tracking. In this way, you will be able to see whether your exercise habits are affecting your symptoms of neck pain.
CareClinic also allows you to register any activity or exercise you are doing. This is perfect for those engaging in physical therapy for neck pain. You can log what exercises you are doing, including any stretching, yoga or resistance training. This allows you to keep a record of your physical therapy, as you hopefully begin to see improvements in your neck pain symptoms.
All in all, CareClinic is the perfect companion to patients experiencing chronic neck pain. You are able to log the severity of your symptoms and the physical therapy you are engaging in. CareClinic also details trends over time, so you can track your progress. Finally, CareClinic is easily shareable with caregivers, physicians and physiotherapists. This means that the burden of your neck pain is not carried by you alone. CareClinic will connect you with a support network, who will help you manage this disorder and improve your quality of life.