Neck pain is a very common problem. Approximately 20% of individuals may be affected by this problem at any given point of time. With changing work habits, the problem is ever increasing. It is of utmost importance to know the causes, prevention and treatment of neck pain.
Neck pain is a broad term. It is used to describe pain in the back of the head, neck and even back of shoulder regions. There is no clear definition. A pain which is uncomplicated, or one which is not associated with severe underlying problem is sometime called non-specific neck pain. Non-specific neck pain is defined as pain with a postural or mechanical basis, often called cervical spondylosis. A pain which lasts more than 3 months is called chronic neck pain.
Prevalence of neck pain
Two-third of people will experience neck pain at some point of time. Neck pain affects the middle age population more, which is the most productive age group. The problem is more common in women as compared to men. The problem is increasing as working habits have rapidly changed over time. Increasing use of smartphones and desk jobs form an important part of our daily life. These contribute significantly to neck pain occurrence and persistence.
Causes of neck pain
In this section, we will be focussing on non-specific neck pain. Non-specific neck pain is defined as pain which has a postural or mechanical basis. In day to day language, it is often called cervical spondylosis. Here is a list of common causes of neck pain in contemporary life.
Slouching or bad posture- Leading cause of neck pain
The most common cause of neck pain is slouching, which is an abnormal bending down of neck while working, using a smartphone or computer, reading or doing any household work. Slouching puts a lot of strain on the neck muscles. More the slouching, more is the strain on the neck muscles. The abnormal neck bending may happen in certain other activities also, like leisurely reading. Some individuals have a habit of lying down reading while using a large pillow or some other support to bend the neck. This puts a lot of strain on the neck joints causing damage in the long run.
How does slouching cause neck pain? Read this to understand Is smartphone causing your neck pain?
Weakness of neck muscles causes neck pain
Exercise is important for all muscle groups. The muscles around the neck region and the shoulder region support each other. Lack or exercise in combination with poor posture, is among the leading causes on non-specific neck pains.
Age related or degenerative changes
Age related wear and tear of joints in cervical spine, vertebrae, and muscles around the spine is an inevitable phenomenon like the wrinkling of the skin. The changes become worse with other causes of neck pain like posture and lack of exercise. The age related changes can be slowed down by maintaining a healthy posture and exercising regularly.
Other causes of neck pain include smoking, depression or anxiety, past history of neck injury, inflammation of joints(arthritis) and many others.
Self treatment or Prevention of neck pain
It is not difficult to understand the ways of preventing neck pain if one understands the causes. After a while, most individuals can understand the inciting cause of their neck pain. The simplest trick is to avoid or remedy the causative factor. For example, an individual experiences neck pain after prolonged use of a laptop or phone. If he reviews his neck posture while working and tries to improve the posture of neck, in most cases neck pain should improve.
Improve posture while sitting or standing
Posture is most important. If you are involved in sitting and working, try to sit straight with your neck upright. Do not slouch. Support your forearms as it will take a lot of load off your shoulder girdle muscles. If you are using a phone, do not slouch, but bring the phone up to the eye level for better neck alignment.
As mentioned earlier, the neck and shoulder group of muscles support each other. Both these muscle groups support the weight of the head throughout its’ range of motion. That is why it is important to exercise these muscle groups together. Isometric neck exercises are the standard exercises to maintain and improve the neck muscle strength. These exercises are simple and can be done at any point of the day, at home or while at work. The exercises just take a few minutes and go a long way in improving the neck pain.
Some form or general exercise routine is also important. Neck pain is quite common in depressed and anxious individuals. General exercise for overall health, besides improving muscle strength, also improves mental health, which indirectly improves non-specific neck pain.
If you can, quit smoking. Avoid carrying heavy backpacks with shoulder straps. Maintain a good sleeping posture, avoid using large pillow.
Warning signs or Red flags
There are certain symptoms, which if present warrant a visit to a specialist.
- Arm pain or weakness- If neck pain radiated to the arm, or if you feel heaviness or weakness in the arm/forearm or hand, a doctor should be consulted. These may indicate a herniated disc causing pressure on a nerve root in the cervical spine. If severe enough it may need surgery also(Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion).
- Difficulty in walking- If you are experiencing difficulty in walking, it may indicate pressure on the cervical spinal cord which affects your legs. This manifests as stiffness in legs, short steps while walking, sudden jerks in the muscles and imbalance while walking.
- Neck pain after fall or injury- Any neck pain that starts after a fall or injury warrants a visit to a spine specialist.
- Fever or weight loss- If the neck pain is associated with fever or weight loss, it may indicate infective process or an underlying malignancy.
- Worsening neck pain- If the neck pain keeps worsening even after taking care of the posture or with home remedies, one should definitely seek expert help.
Learn more about the causes, prevention and red flags of neck pain through this video.(In Hindi)
Disclaimer- This is for the general awareness of the patients and cannot replace expert medical advice. Treatment of neck pain is decided by a clinician after necessary clinical examination and relevant investigations.
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