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What's Causing That Pain in Your Neck?

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If you’ve ever been doing housework or activities with friends and felt a sudden twinge in your neck, you may have been worried that you’ve injured something serious.

“Neck pain can be hard to ignore because it can seriously limit your daily activities,” said Christopher Noonan, MD, a spine surgeon at Samaritan Neurosurgery in Corvallis. “When something hurts in your neck it’s helpful to know what type of pain you’re having.”

Soft Tissue Pain

According to Dr. Noonan, neck pain is most often caused by a strained muscle or sprain in the ligaments or tendons. Lifting something heavy, sleeping in an awkward position or trying a new activity can all lead to damage in the soft tissue. These types of injuries will usually get better on their own within a few days or weeks. To help while you heal, you can:

  • Limit activities that make your neck pain worse. Do not stop all movement or immobilize your neck as that can cause other muscles to weaken and make your recovery longer.
  • Ice the injury for 20 minutes at a time. Icing can help reduce inflammation the first 48 hours after an injury. After that, use periods of ice or heat to help with pain, whichever is most comfortable for you. Be sure and use a thin cloth between the ice or heat and your skin.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication as needed for up to three weeks.

If pain persists after three weeks, schedule a visit with your primary care provider.

Spinal Conditions

Neck pain involving a pinched nerve that can cause arm pain, weakness or numbness is common as well.

The spine is a combination of bones (vertebrae) and fibrous discs that act as cushions between the bones. Openings in the vertebrae surround and protect the spinal cord. According to Dr. Noonan, the most common causes of neck pain involving the spine are herniated discs, bone spurs and arthritis.

Herniated Disc

The discs that join the bones in your spine contain a gel-like fluid in the center. The tough outer shell of the disc can weaken due to natural aging or injury, and the inner disc pushes through and presses against the spinal nerves. This compression on a nerve or the spinal cord can cause the arms to feel numb or tingly. You may or may not have pain with a herniated disc.

Bone Spurs

As the discs in the spine wear down over time, the bones may create an extra growth to support the vertebrae called a bone spur. Sometimes bone spurs can take up space in the spinal canal and press against a nerve causing pain. The condition usually forms due to natural aging, but poor posture and chronic inflammation caused by injury can also lead to bone spurs.

Arthritis

Arthritis is a result of the slow wear-and-tear on the body over time. This natural aging is often at the root of herniated discs and bone spurs. Arthritis of the neck is common in older adults, occurring in more than 85 percent of people over the age of 60, according to the Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. However, many don’t experience pain with the condition.

Treatment Options

Most people respond well to non-surgical treatments like physical therapy, massage, spinal manipulation, traction, acupuncture or gentle stretching like yoga. Allow eight to 12 weeks for pain to improve. Surgery may be necessary for weakness, spinal cord problems, and arm pain. Dr. Noonan notes it is only seldom needed for neck pain. 

“Neck pain is very common and most often will get better on its own with time and some self care,” said Dr. Noonan. “However, it’s a good idea to be seen by a clinician who can guide your treatment, particularly if you don’t improve within several weeks.”

Visit your primary care provider if you are experiencing neck pain that lasts longer than several weeks and is accompanied by:

  • Tingling or numbness in the arms or hands.
  • Weakness in an arm.
  • Difficulty with balance or leg coordination.

These are signs that your spine may be affected and you may be referred to a neurosurgeon for further testing.

Learn more from Dr. Noonan about back and neck pain in articles and videos, or by talking with your primary care clinician about a referral.

Cell phones can cause neck pain for many, get tips to relieve this strain. Learn more about the affects of posture on back and neck pain.