The neck is such a vital structure because it connects the head to the body. Unfortunately many experience a form of neck pain at some point in their life. There are a number of sources of pain within the neck, and oftentimes multiple structures are damaged as a result of trauma or repetitive strain injuries. Here are the five most common injuries and why they are such a pain in the neck:
5. Whiplash. Typically referred to as an injury that occurs as a result of a car accident, whiplash can occur in any instance of a collision into a stable individual. When a collision occurs, a person’s neck is violently thrust backwards before rebounding forwards. Unfortunately this type of collision can force the muscles and ligaments around the spine to stretch beyond their limits. This results in tearing and bleeding, which inevitably leads to pain. Oftentimes pain is not immediately felt due to our body’s protective response, but slowly settles in like a bruise would following an injury.
4. Herniated Intervertebral Disc. A bulged, protruded, or herniated disc refers to the degrees of severity of an injury to the disc that rests between the vertebrae, or bones of the spine. The disc is made up of two layers that help resist tensile forces, permit movement, and connect the vertebral segment. When the outer layer of the disc is torn due to violent injury or repetitive strain it can cause a bulge of material onto the nerves that exit the spinal cord. When these nerves become pinched by disc material it can lead to decreased strength in the arms, numbness, altered sensation or tingling between the shoulder blades or down the arm of the respective side of injury. It also causes loss of motion, such as turning the head over the shoulder, and considerable pain in the neck and arms.
3. Facet Strain. The facets are where each vertebrae meets the next throughout the back portion of the spinal column. They are primarily responsible for movement; for example when turning your head to look to the side, each facet joint in the neck and upper back provides a certain degree of motion to allow your head to rotate on the body. However, these joints are just like the other joints in the body where they can become strained. Typically this kind of injury causes bleeding within the joint, which leads to pain, loss of movement, and possibly scarring. A strained facet will typically cause pain in the area of injury and not down the spine or into the arms. It will also present as increased pain when moving your head in certain directions, most commonly when you tilt your head up, to the side, or rotating to the side of injury will be most painful.
2. Osteoarthritis, Degenerative Joint Disease. One of the more common neck pains can be the result of degeneration of the joint surfaces. Over years of abuse, the cartilage which provides cushion to where the bones meet along the spine becomes worn down. This process causes inflammation, and can even change the shape of the bone (commonly known as bone spurs.) The discs can also degenerate, causing them to compress and place more strain on the cartilage of the facet joints. Nerve endings within the joints sense the increased wear-and-tear, as well as inflammation, and respond by sending pain signals to our brain.
1. Postural Strain. When sitting or standing in poor posture for too long the joints and muscles become stressed. Bad positioning results in a mechanical disadvantage for the muscles and ligaments that hold us together, and forces a greater workload on these structures. This causes strain, and typically results in injury, or pain. Over long periods of misuse the joints become worn down, and muscles become tense from being overworked. The average human head weighs around 12-14 pounds. One can imagine the stress of holding a 14 pound bowling ball in an awkward position for more than a few seconds. This is what happens to the neck when the head is protruding forward in bad posture, such as when driving or working at a computer.
It is important to maintain a healthy neck in order to help prevent injury. A lifestyle consisting of frequent exercise and maintaining good postural habits may help avoid serious neck injuries. However, if you experience persistent or debilitating pain contact a physician to discuss the most appropriate treatment options.