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Neck Pain Explained

Possible explanations for neck pain you may be experiencing.

neck pain explained

The structure of the joints in the neck allows a large degree of flexibility in this part of the spine. The neck can also move relatively more freely than the rest of the spine as there are no additional bony structures attached in this region, such as a ribcage or pelvis. Without the support and protection of other structures however, the neck is more vulnerable when subjected to strain. Its very flexibility, so helpful and necessary for everyday living, is also the cause of many of our problems.

During upright standing, the head should be carried directly above the shoulder girdle forming a cervical lordosis. This is the small inward curve, observed from the side view, just above the shoulders. Postural neglect sees people carrying the head in front of their body with the chin poking forward. This alters the cervical lordosis such that the joints of the lower neck are bent forwards, whereas those of the upper neck are bent backwards. This is called forward head carriage or protruded head posture, and if present often or long enough, neck problems may develop.

Pain may arise in a neck joint when two opposing bone surfaces are placed in a position that overstretches the surrounding ligaments and other soft tissues. This position could be one where your head is slouched all the way forward, backward, to the side or any combination. At first, there may be only minor discomfort, but as time passes, if the joint is held in a position of overstretch, pain develops. The pain warning encourages you to stop overstretching to avoid damage. If you do so, the pain ceases immediately and no damage occurs.

Failure to heed the warning system may lead to ligamentous and soft tissue tearing. This produces an aching sensation that continues even when you stop the overstretching position. The pain may reduce in intensity but continues even when the neck is at rest. The pain increases with movement in the wrong direction and ceases only when some healing has occurred. Healing should only take several days but will be prolonged if you continue to apply the same strains to the neck each day.

It is often thought that neck pain is caused by strained muscles. These structures can be overstretched, but usually heal rapidly due to their dense blood supply and seldom cause pain lasting for more than a week. It is usually the ligaments and joint capsules underlying the muscles which are injured first. These tissues provide support for spinal joints and will injure if subjected to forces of overstretch.

The real problem stems from pain in and around the affected joint. An outside force may place a sudden severe strain on the neck either due to an accident, sudden movement or sporting event. More commonly, overstretching is caused by postural stresses placing less severe strains on the neck but over a longer time period. When the tissues heal they may form scar tissue that is less elastic and shorter in length than healthy “un-injured” ligamentous tissue. With the formation of scar tissue, normal movements now become painful as they stretch the “scars” in these shortened structures.

Sometimes the ligaments are injured to the extent that the intervertebral discs are affected. The disc loses its ability to absorb shock and its outer wall weakens. This allows the inner contents of the disc to bulge or protrude outside its normal confines and may press painfully on spinal nerves. This may explain some of the pains felt further away from the source of the injury, such as in the arm or hand. Complications of a bulging disc in the neck include: misalignment of the vertebra during normal movement patterns and headaches.

When you hurt your neck, if you simply wait for the pain to pass the tissues will heal somewhat, but they will be more likely to re-injure in the future. You might also be more susceptible to the “terrible” complication of a bulging disc. To avoid this neck pain becoming an ongoing problem, there are appropriate exercises you can perform to stretch and lengthen these tissues gradually, and restore their proper function. The exercises are adapted from the Robin McKenzie method of treating spinal conditions.

Always seek professional advice the moment you hurt your neck. Physical therapy is an excellent means to speed recovery and promote effective healing of the tissues. Seeing a professional early on can be the difference between fixing your neck pain in less than a week versus one to three months of chronic pain.

To aid in the prevention of neck pain, you should familiarize yourself with other causes of neck pain. Awareness of these causes should hopefully see you avoiding neck pain altogether.

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.

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