A common problem, neck pain can affect any age. It is more commonly seen as a result of trauma in a younger person and caused by degenerative changes in older people.
The neck is constructed with 7 tiny bones called Cervical vertebrae, stacked on top of each other with shock absorbing wedges called intervertebral discs separating all but the top one.
There is a complex series of muscles attached at different levels of the cervical spine. Some radiating out to the shoulders, some the upper part of the middle of the back, and others up to the head itself.
The neck has the arduous task of keeping a rather large, heavy object called the 'head' in place and upright, and must also be able to move it in various directions. There is a fine balance between the neck muscles contracting and thus causing a movement, and others relaxing to allow that movement to take place.
In some instances of trauma such as a whiplash injury, some groups of muscles and the ligaments that hold the joints in place become severely stretched and irritated. The muscles go in to a permanent spasm or contraction not allowing the relaxation phase, which another group of muscles relies on before they can move.
The fine balance is disturbed, and often the neck is held fixed in one position, being extremely painful to move to another as you are trying to 'force' contracted muscles to relax. Degenerative changes on the vertebral surfaces, coupled with inflammatory changes (Spondylosis ) lead to protective muscle spasms. These have similar pain symptoms although the cause is different.
Nearly all the pain felt is muscular in origin, although it is quite possible to experience nerve root pain if discs are damaged or the nerve root is stretched traumatically. X-rays and blood tests can confirm the diagnosis of degeneration, but normally a CT scan or MRI is needed to confirm disc or nerve damage.
Treatment must follow along the path of relieving the pain without compromising the delicate structures initially. In other words it is better to take a mild painkiller such as Paracetamol than try to 'work it off'. Frequently supporting the neck with a soft collar or scarf to keep the muscles warm will help.
Physiotherapy or Osteopathic treatment has proved successful in helping to release stubborn muscles and stiff joints, once the initial healing process has been given a chance to work.
Often a stiff neck can be related to/or as a result of, tight stiff shoulders, so gentle exercises aimed at loosening the shoulder girdle can have a beneficial effect on the neck without directly treating it.
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