Poor posture while working at a computer or sleeping on the stomach with the neck turned to one side are examples of habitual activities that can cause acute or chronic neck strain. A forceful injury, such as whiplash, is considered a neck sprain. Both types of injury can cause muscle spasms, limit range of motion, and inflict varying degrees of neck pain.
In general, the causes of neck pain include:
- Injury to the bones, joints, or ligaments
- Degenerative changes in the spine
- Herniated disc
- Vertebral compression fracture
- Narrowing of the spinal canal (e.g., spinal stenosis)
- Medical conditions such as arthritis, migraine headaches
- Infection (e.g., meningitis, mononucleosis)
- Disease (e.g., cancer)
Fortunately, most cases of neck strain can be successfully managed with conservative treatment. Persistent or recurrent neck pain may require diagnostic testing and more aggressive treatment.
The portion of the spine associated with the neck is called the cervical spine. Physicians differentiate between neck strain (caused by repeated actions) and neck sprain (which may be caused by something like whiplash). These conditions may be acute (that is, of short duration) or chronic (of long duration).
Mild to moderate pain, along with headache and stiffness, are common with neck strain. However, a stiff neck accompanied by high fever, nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light could indicate meningitis – a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.
Radiculopathy or “pinched nerve” refers to symptoms resulting from compression of a nerve root. A herniated disc and/or degenerative changes can alter the anatomy of the spine, affecting the nerve roots branching out from the spinal cord. When the spinal cord is compressed or subjected to infection or inflammation, the symptoms that result are termed myelopathy.
Symptoms of radiculopathy include:
- Pain that travels from the neck to the shoulder and sometimes down the arm
- Numbness and/or tingling in the arms or hands
- Weakness with or without muscle atrophy
Symptoms of myelopathy include:
- Loss of normal motor coordination in the arms or hands
- Difficulty with fine motor movements (e.g. writing, buttoning)
- Difficulty grasping or holding on to objects
- Heaviness or weakness in the upper and possible lower limbs
- Disturbances in gait or balance
A diagnosis is made based on patient history, physical examination, and sometimes imaging or other studies (such as X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or electromyography tests). Surgical intervention is not always needed. Conservative treatments shown to relieve pain and restore function may include the following:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and pain
- Muscle relaxants to calm spasm
- Non-narcotic or narcotic analgesics to alleviate pain
- Temporary use of cervical collars for support
- Physical therapy
Today, patients who need neck surgery have more options than ever before. If surgery is required, it may be that the specialists can perform minimally invasive surgery. Minimally invasive surgery uses small incisions, minimises damage to surrounding tissue and may result in faster recovery times and less blood loss.
Neck pain can be safely and effectively treated . How well a patient responds to treatment may be affected by the severity of the neck pain, how long it has lasted, and the patient’s overall health.
Repetitive stress injuries can be associated with neck pain so patients exposed to such activities may be at greater risk for neck pain. Neck pain left untreated can worsen. Accidents and trauma also expose patients to a risk of neck pain.
There are many different reasons for neck pain, which may be mild or severe, even debilitating. Neck strain occurs due to repetitive injury or habitual actions, while neck sprain may be caused by whiplash. Other causes of neck pain may be spinal conditions, migraines, or infections. Many people with neck pain are effectively treated without surgery, but when surgery is required, state-of-the-art minimally invasive procedures may offer patients special benefits.