Neck Pain

What a pain in the neck! There is probably a reason that this phrase is used to describe things that bother or annoy you. Why not “what a pain in the knee!”? Well, it might be because neck pain can affect so many of your daily activities, so it’s pretty aggravating. It’s also pretty common, so pretty much anyone can relate to it on some level. Let’s take a look at common neck pain symptoms, common causes, some anatomy, and some ways physical therapy can help.   

Neck Pain Facts: 

  • Up to 70% of the population will experience neck pain in their lifetime 
  • 54% of the population will have reported neck pain in the past 6 months 
  • Neck pain is second only to low back pain in annual cost when you consider lost wages, cost of treatment, and compensation expenditures. 
  • 25% of patients receiving outpatient physical therapy is due to neck pain 

Common Symptoms: 

  • Pain that gets worse as you hold your head in one position for prolonged periods, such as using a computer, driving, studying, or reading a book.  
  • Feelings of muscle tightness/spasm 
  • Trouble turning your head – for example when checking your blind spot while driving or trying to talk to someone sitting next to you.  
  • Headaches – often headaches can be caused by stiff neck joints or tight neck muscles. These are called cervicogenic headaches or tension-type headaches.  
  • Radiating Pain – sometimes people experience pain into their shoulder blade or down their arm. This could be related to a nerve in your neck being affected. So although you feel the pain in your shoulder blade or your arm, it might actually be happening because of something going on in your neck.  

Common Causes of Neck Pain: 

  • Arthritis 
  • Muscle tension/muscle spasm 
  • Disc disorders (bulging disc, herniated disc) 
  • Whiplash (a quick back and forth injury that can muscle strains and ligament sprains) 
  • Sleeping position 
  • Prolonged sitting/poor posture 
  • Physical inactivity 
  • Stress 

In medicine, the neck is called the cervical spine. It consists of seven neck bones, or vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a disc. The discs act as separation and cushion between the vertebrae. 

Your neck also has lots of joints, ligaments, and muscles that hold things together and allow for movement of your neck.  

Physical Therapy for Neck Pain

Ok, great, but can physical therapy help? Good news! Yes! Physical therapy can help with neck pain. But you may say, “I’ve tried all the neck stretches, I’ve used heat on it, and I’ve taken ibuprofen and tylenol and I’m still having pain. What else could there be to try?” Well, there are lots of other things that physical therapy can do for people who are experiencing neck pain. What those things are depends heavily on the initial evaluation and the factors the therapist identifies that might be contributing to your neck pain. Yes, your neck hurts, but maybe you have a stiff upper back or stiff shoulders in addition to a stiff neck and working to stretch your upper back and shoulders could help improve the symptoms in your neck. Maybe your shoulders and neck have gotten a little weak or deconditioned and strengthening is what you need to help decrease your pain. Maybe you have a lot of tension that just won’t let go and manual therapy and/or dry needling will help in reducing symptoms and allow us to get to the root cause of why you keep getting tight. It depends on each individual’s situation, and no two people are alike, so it really can make a difference to get looked at by a physical therapist to get an individualized treatment plan.