July 8, 2021

A number of factors can contribute to neck pain; here’s how to manage it.

Nobody likes a pain in the neck, but neck issues are a common cause of pain and disability among adults. “Approximately one in four adults report having had at least one episode of significant neck pain in the past year,” explains Dr. Amir Abtahi, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Vanderbilt Spine Center.

Not only can neck pain have a significant impact on individuals but it is also a common cause of lost work productivity and health care expenditures.

Help for neck and back pain

If you’re ready to tackle the root cause of your back and neck pain, this treatment guide can help.

Risk factors

Many things can cause neck pain, Abtahi explains. They include disc degeneration; work-related factors, such as sitting at a desk or computer for many hours each day; and less obvious causes, like stress and anxiety. People whose jobs involve lifting (particularly overhead lifting) and/or prolonged periods of time with their necks in awkward positions — such as mechanics, plumbers, electricians or surgeons(!) — may also be at an increased risk of developing neck problems. In many cases, there is no specific history of an injury. Pain may start suddenly and for no apparent reason or can come on more gradually.

Common symptoms

Cervical spine issues (problems with the vertebrae in the neck) may not just cause pain in the neck but may cause you to feel pain in other areas, including the shoulder and shoulder blade (most commonly) or the chest.

Sometimes, other symptoms are signs of a more serious problem. These “red flag” symptoms include pain radiating down the arm and/or numbness or weakness in the upper extremity. These symptoms may indicate the presence of a pinched nerve in the neck, a condition known as radiculopathy.

Other “red flag” symptoms include difficulty with hand dexterity, difficulty with balance while standing or walking, or bladder incontinence. These symptoms may mean the spinal cord is compressed, a serious condition known as myelopathy.

When to see a specialist

Most episodes of neck pain are benign. These typically do not require a visit to a spine specialist. Care can be started at home and typically includes changing your activity, icing the painful spot, and taking over-the-county anti-inflammatory medications.

However, when neck pain does not go away after this do-it-yourself care at home, or if any “red flag” symptoms exist, you may need a visit with a spine specialist. X-rays of the neck and sometimes an MRI can help identify what’s causing symptoms, Abtahi said. He usually starts with conservative treatments such as physical therapy and sometimes recommends spinal injections.

Sometimes – if symptoms have not responded to these treatments, or when a more serious problem is happening – surgery may be necessary.

Recommendations for avoiding and managing neck pain

  • Be aware of risk factors related to your job, and protect yourself from them. This may include being more aware of your posture at work and potential triggers for neck pain such as awkward neck positions. Sitting with the shoulders slouched forward is a common cause of pain because it forces the neck into hyperextension.
  • Maintain good strength in all muscle groups in the shoulders, upper back and neck. Isometric neck strengthening exercises are one of the best ways to keep pain at bay.
  • At first symptoms, start doing neck stretching exercises, use over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine, and ice the pained area. Change your physical activity to avoid aggravating the pain.
  • If symptoms do not get better, or if “red flag” symptoms begin, consider seeing a spine specialist for further treatment recommendations.

The Vanderbilt Spine Center treats patients from across the Southeast for back pain, sciatica, whiplash and other conditions of the spine, offering a full range of treatments including non-surgical options. If surgery is necessary, the Vanderbilt Spine Center team provides an extraordinary level of experience and expertise for each patient’s needs. Download our treatment guide and schedule an appointment online.

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