Neck Pain: Relief, Symptoms, Signs, Causes & Treatment
Neck pain is caused by tensions and cramps in the neck muscles. The pain usually extends to the back of the head or the entire shoulder-arm area. Neck tension is harmless as a result of prolonged exposure to the wrong position or a cool breeze. But serious, degenerative changes in the spine can also sometimes cause neck pain. What can be done to relieve the symptoms? How do you find the cause? How can neck pain be prevented? You can read the answers here.
- Description: neck pain that may radiate into the head, shoulder or arm; stiff neck with limited mobility, sometimes numbness/prickling fingers
- Causes: including muscle tension (psychological, due to drafts, poor posture, strain), injuries (whiplash, vertebral fractures), physical wear (e.g. osteoarthritis, herniated disc, osteoporosis), transmission pain, tumors, rheumatic diseases, fibromyalgia, Scheuermann’s disease, scoliosis
- Diagnosis: Patient interview (anamnesis), physical examination of the neck’s mobility and special features of the physique, imaging procedures, possibly neurological examination.
- Therapy: e.g. anaesthetic injections, acupuncture, physiotherapy, manual medicine with chiropractic and osteopathy.
- Self-help: including active relaxation, neck keep warm, neck muscles strengthen/back school, massage, use neck pillow, adjust chair and PC monitor, occasionally do loosening exercises
Neck pain: Description
The neck area consists of countless nerves, many muscles and a total of seven vertebral bodies – a complex construct that forgives us quite a few (postural) sins. As soon as neck pain sets in, the neck area was usually overloaded long before.
Neck pain is usually the result of tense muscles in the neck area. The neck reacts to prolonged persistence in a bad posture, cold draughts or incorrect lying with painful cramping. Even in psychologically stressful situations our body is tense. For example, lovesickness can trigger neck pain.
Neck pain is rarely limited to the neck alone. Neck tension often spreads to the shoulder and the head. Neck pain can also extend into the arm and even cause numbness in the fingers, for example when they radiate along nerves and irritate them. Sometimes headaches are also caused by neck tension.
A stiff neck develops when the neck tension severely restricts the mobility of the head and rotation to the right, left, up or down is only possible with severe pain.
Around 70 percent of all pain sufferers complain about back pain. It is estimated that one in three of them suffers especially from neck and shoulder girdle pain. Work-related neck pain is the most common.
Acute and chronic neck pain
Acute neck pain subsides after a few days to three weeks and is usually harmless. They can be caused by overtime at the computer in a correspondingly unfriendly posture or by psychological stress such as stress.
Chronic neck pain lasts longer than twelve weeks. They are usually signs of physical wear and tear. If you do nothing about it and maintain a worn, incorrect posture for years, consequential damage can develop. These include:
- Cervical Syndrome (Cervical Spine Syndrome): Neck pain, which can radiate into the shoulder and arm, occurs without other disturbances of the nerves. It is also possible for the neck to become so tense that the movements of the head become impossible. This is called a stiff neck in the vernacular.
- Cervical brachial syndrome (neck-arm syndrome): Neck pain radiates into the shoulder and arm. In addition, paralysis or sensory disturbances can occur in the hands.
- Migraine and headaches: These are common consequences of chronic neck pain.
- Inflammations in the shoulder: They can occur in chronic neck pain as a result of the gentle posture and avoidance of painful movement.
- Intervertebral disc problems: The tense musculature, in particular, is not so strongly stressable. Therefore, the vertebral joints have to carry more strain. Herniated discs are thus favored by neck pain.
- Respiratory disorders: The stiff neck can also extend to the chest and thus lead to flat, compressed breathing.
Neck pain: causes and possible diseases
The neck is unique in its position: it carries the heavy head and is very mobile. A fine balance must be maintained. Too often, however, we make the neck quite heavy: we expose it to a cold breeze or sleep and work in a neck unfavorable position. Such incorrect postures are often the cause of neck pain. They are muscular in these cases. The neck muscles harden and shorten as a result of overloading, which can be felt painfully (especially when pressure is applied to the corresponding area). Chronic neck tension, on the other hand, can indicate changes in the skeleton or the intervertebral discs.
In the following you will learn more about the possible causes of neck pain:
- Incorrect posture: If the same incorrect position is taken again and again during work, sleep or sport, muscle tension is the result.
- The Psyche: Mental tension also manifests itself physically in cramped muscles. Neck tension is therefore often caused by stress at work, anxiety or relationship problems.
- Colds & flu: The typical headaches and limb pains of a severe cold or flu are also muscular.
- Draughts: Cold draughts cause the muscles to contract subconsciously – a stiff neck is often the result when cold wind meets a sweaty throat.
- Muscle strains: The neck has a large range of motion and is therefore particularly susceptible to uncontrolled, sudden movements and strains that lead to neck pain.
- Torticollis: Excessive muscle activity in the neck area leads to uncontrollable muscle tension and an oblique head posture.
- Whiplash injury: Acceleration injuries result in muscle tension and strain as a result of abrupt head movement (especially in rear-end collisions). Possible consequences include severe neck pain, headaches, dizziness, dizziness, insecure gait or impaired vision. Chronic problems with the neck are also possible.
- Vertebral fractures: Here the greatest care must be taken with first aid measures, as paraplegia from the neck can result!
- Herniated disc: Although a herniated disc occurs less frequently in the cervical spine, it is particularly possible due to protracted malpositions or accidents.
- Arthrosis: The age-appropriate wear and tear of the joints increases considerably due to static malpositions. Due to the special anatomy of the vertebral bodies in the neck, “Uncovertebral Arthrosis” is frequent, a wear of the so-called half joints, i.e. the joints in the cervical spine that are unable to move.
- Spondylosis: Especially older people are affected by the stiffening of the spinal column due to changes in the intervertebral discs. In addition to a stiff neck, stabbing pain and movement restrictions are also present.
- Chondrosis: An age-related wear of the intervertebral discs is also possible in the neck area.
- Cervical spinal canal stenosis: This causes a narrowing of the spinal canal in which the spinal cord runs in the area of the cervical spine. Typical symptoms are neck pain, numbness in the arm and even paralysis.
- Cervicocephal syndrome (Barré-Lieou syndrome): Wear and tear or changes in the cervical spine cause headaches, dizziness, impaired vision or ringing in the ears in addition to neck pain. The mobility of the neck is often limited and swallowing disorders can also occur.
- Osteoporosis: Especially postmenopausal women suffer from bone loss, which can be felt throughout the entire body, including pain in the neck.
- Rickets: This leads to disturbances in bone growth caused by a vitamin D deficiency. The entire musculoskeletal system is weakened, which can lead to neck pain.
- Meningitis: Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria and often manifests itself in neck stiffness, headaches, fever, confusion, loss of consciousness and nausea. Typically, the chin can no longer be bent towards the chest. If there are signs of meningitis, the emergency doctor should be notified immediately, as permanent brain damage is imminent.
- Transmission pain: Disorders of internal organs such as the heart, liver, gallbladder or stomach can manifest themselves as pain in the neck. This is probably possible because certain areas of the body are supplied by nerve roots from the spinal cord. But muscle hardening, which is painful due to pressure, can also cause this transferred pain.
- Tumors/metastases in the neck area: Thyroid or vertebral growths can manifest themselves in a stiff neck. Lymph nodes are also often enlarged and palpable.
- Rheumatic diseases: Rheumatoid arthritis and Bekhterev’s disease, but also degenerative arthrosis can cause a stiff neck and poor posture.
- Abscesses: Purulent swellings in the throat can lead to a stiff neck – but not only: the swelling also threatens shortness of breath and suffocation! Abscesses should therefore be treated by a doctor immediately.
- Disc inflammation (diszitis): Although inflammation of the disc and the surrounding vertebral bodies is rare, it does occur. It can cause severe, persistent neck pain. The cause is usually a bacterial infection or rheumatic disease.
- Scoliosis (slanted back): An oblique position of the spine is noticeable in the entire back, including the neck. In some cases, it can only be treated surgically.
- Scheuermann’s disease: Patients develop a pronounced hunchback, which causes problems in the neck area, among other things.
- Fibromyalgia: This chronic pain disorder is associated with chronic pain in the neck and other parts of the body, pronounced fatigue, loss of concentration and sleep disorders.
- Malformations of the vertebral bodies: A rare cause of neck pain can be a tilt and file syndrome in which the cervical vertebrae have grown together. Also rare is the occurrence of a thickening of the vertebral bodies (Paget’s disease).
Neck pain diagnosis: When do you need to see a doctor?
A stiff neck is often the result of cramped and tense muscles. Although neck pain is unpleasant, it usually disappears by itself within a few days or weeks – at least if the cause of the tension (wrong pillow, non-ergonomic desk posture, etc.) is eliminated.
However, if the discomfort persists or does not resolve, you should consult a doctor to clarify the cause. Contact your general doctor or orthopaedist for occasional neck pain. If the neck pain is accompanied by tingling and numbness in the arms and hands, possibly also by slight paralysis, you should consult a neurologist. This could be cervical spine syndrome (cervical spine syndrome). These complaints often occur at night during sleep – the affected persons then wake up with numb limbs or tingling sensations in their fingers.
If there are any signs of meningitis, you should call an emergency doctor immediately. Such signs are:
- Fever, cramps and headaches
- Pain when bending the head towards the chest
- Paralysis and disturbances of consciousness
Neck pain: What does the doctor do?
By describing the complaints and giving details of your lifestyle in the anamnesis interview, you provide the doctor with initial clues as to the cause of the pain, for example postural problems. This is followed by a physical examination. The focus is on the mobility of the neck and head, special features of the body structure and the occurrence of pain when tapping or palpating. The use of imaging procedures such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computer tomography (CT) is often useful and helpful. If there are signs of nerve irritations or nerve damage (such as numbness or tingling in the arm and hands, paralysis), a neurological examination is necessary.
Neck Pain Therapy
In the case of acute neck pain or degenerative wear and tear, there are various therapies to make the stiff neck more flexible and to relieve the pain:
- Injection procedures: In the process, irritated nerve roots are injected with local anesthetics. This interrupts the pain conduction to the brain. If the pain is reduced as a result, the muscles in this area relax. Neural therapy is also common.
- Acupuncture: The fine needles – placed in the right places – bring the energy channels back into the flow and have a pain-relieving effect.
- Physiotherapy: The physiotherapist relieves existing neck tension with massages or certain hand movements (e.g. trigger point therapy). In physiotherapy, patients learn exercises to build up their neck muscles. This is often the only way to achieve long-term success with postural weakness.
- Manual Medicine: Chiropractic and osteopathy are used to relieve joint blockages and tension.
Neck pain: What you can do yourself
Usually the cause of a stiff neck is a wrong posture or movement. For example, stressed people often take an unhealthy position by pulling their shoulders up and unconsciously trying to make themselves invisible. In order to take targeted action against the stiff neck, you should observe a few rules:
- Active relaxation: With progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson, every muscle in the body is deliberately released after ten seconds of strong tension. Since the psychological tension is physically manifested as muscle tension, this technique also calms the mind.
- Keep neck warm: Warmth from a hot bath, a thick woollen scarf or a hot-water bottle loosens the muscles and relieves pain. Warming plasters that keep the neck warm for hours are also particularly effective.
- Avoid draughts: A cold draught or cold is often the cause of neck pain. If you react sensitively, you should also protect your neck with a light cloth in summer.
- Sports: Endurance sports such as running, hiking, yoga or swimming (here please only crawl or backstroke, as the head is raised unfavourably when breaststroking) keep the entire body fit and also work well against stress.
- Back training: A targeted strengthening of the back and neck muscles is the key to permanently preventing neck pain. In a special training session, back-friendly sitting, bending and bending are learned and the stressed muscles are strengthened. Do not be surprised about sore back muscles afterwards.
- Massage: A careful massage, preferably by a physiotherapist, can literally knead away shoulder and neck tensions.
- Sleep well: A neck pillow or a mattress that is easy on the back is a good protection against neck pain.
- Medication: Painkillers relieve muscular tension by eliminating pain. At the same time, they also inhibit inflammation in this area. Suitable preparations contain the anti-inflammatory active ingredient Diclofenac or Ibuprofen.
Neck pain: Tips for the workplace
Hours of cramped sitting in a position and staring into the computer – that can’t be healthy. Tension and pain are typical consequences of this one-sided strain and incorrect posture. Neck pain are signals from the body to change something in this current situation. You should therefore design your workplace to be as ergonomic as possible:
- Chair: The office chair should adapt to your body and not vice versa. An upright sitting position, both legs hip-width on the floor and the arms lying at right angles on the tabletop are considered to be a healthy sitting position.
- Monitor: There should be at least 19.5 inches between the eyes and the screen to avoid a cramped posture. The height is most favourable when the view falls slightly downwards when sitting upright.
- Keyboard and mouse: The forearms should be horizontal to the keyboard. Both computer mice and keyboards are available in special, ergonomically optimized variants. All in all, the arms and hands should work as close to the body as possible to prevent neck pain and shoulder tension.
- Headset instead of phone: If you make a lot of calls and squeeze the telephone receiver between your shoulder and ear in order to have both hands free, you will provoke neck tension. A headset that keeps the head upright is more advantageous here.
Preventing neck tension: Exercises
Build in regular small breaks for stretching or stretching into your daily work routine and frequently change the position on your office chair. Movement relaxes the muscles. For this reason, you should not shy away from activities that can be done standing up, or the occasional visit to a photocopier, etc. On the contrary!
In addition, you can loosen up the neck muscles a little with targeted exercises:
- Loose shoulders: Raise your shoulders as you inhale and drop them as you exhale deeply. Repeat the exercise five times.
- Swing while standing: Stand hip-width next to your office chair and swing your arms to the right and left without moving your shoulders or upper body. Repeat the swing about ten times.
- Stretch neck: Carefully bend your head to the left while standing, while your right hand stretches down until you feel a stretch in your right neck. Now hold the position for ten seconds and then repeat the exercise on the left side.
- Stretching your back again: Place your palms against your forehead and bend your head downwards against slight resistance from your hands until your chin comes to rest on your chest. From this position, cross your hands at the back of your head and slowly straighten your head again.
- Finally, loosen your shoulders with circular movements and shake your arms out.
The more often you take small breaks in (office) everyday life, the better it is. You should do such exercises at least once a day to prevent neck pain (e.g. during lunch break).