Our necks work hard and we need to take care of them. Consider that a human head weighs, on average, between 10 – 11 pounds, or 4.5 – 5 kilos. That’s a lot of weight to support and constantly move around so, perhaps unsurprisingly, our necks can be prone to aches and pains.
But what causes this pain and how can we treat it or avoid it altogether?
Your neck is made up of seven vertebrae which form the cervical spine (vertebrae C1 – C7, in case you’re wondering). These vertebrae stack up in a column, cushioned with discs to absorb shock. They connect your skull to the upper part of your torso and also contain the spinal cord. Your neck is both delicate and incredibly strong and flexible.
Any injury to, or pain in, the neck area can radiate beyond the neck into the skull, down the back, into the arms and across the shoulders. Symptoms can include difficulty or pain when moving the neck, particularly when turning the head to look sideways. Headaches can also occur and when looking to the side or over the shoulder, you may find you turn your whole body instead of your stiff neck.
Neck pain, injury or stiffness can occur for many different reasons. It’s a fairly common ailment and most of us will have experienced some degree of neck pain. The most common reason is posture related strain, often brought on by sitting in a hunched or slouched position for long periods. Sleeping with your neck at an unusual angle or with a poor pillow can often aggravate this type of pain as well.
In these instances, the pain can recede fairly quickly as your muscles and joints recover in the short term, so you don’t often feel the need to seek medical help. The best remedies for this type of pain are to sit straighter, take breaks, check your desk ergonomics and chair position, make sure your pillow is supportive – and not to lie on your front if you can avoid it.
Sitting for long periods, stress and tension can also lead to a tightening of the shoulders and jaw which over time can lead to tight muscles and a stiff neck. Patients can also experience other symptoms when they have a painful neck. It is common for people to develop headaches, light-headedness and dizziness, as well as stiffness and limited movement.
There are also more significant causes of neck pain that do not always resolve on their own. Chronic muscle imbalances may require manual treatment and targeted exercises to resolve. Strain to the joints in the neck from injury, overuse or wear and tear can also require direct treatment. In such cases inflammation may develop in the joints and surrounding tissues that can cause significant discomfort. It is common for such pain to radiate elsewhere and cause more complex pain. Hands on treatment from an osteopath can quickly and effectively help to reduce the pain associated with such problems and change the mechanical factors that may have led to the problem developing in the first place.
The shock absorbing discs may also become strained. As with low back disc strains, these can be painful themselves, but more commonly they can affect nearby nerves which may result in pain, tingling and possibly numbness and weakness into the shoulder or arm. Such conditions require careful assessment, diagnosis and management by someone like an osteopath, so that you are able to receive the best treatment to help resolve the problem.
Most neck pain will dissipate within a few days. You can help it along by being aware of and improving your posture and stretching your neck muscles. Usually in the first 48 hrs applying ice to the site of pain will reduce any inflammation. After the first 48hrs it may be more appropriate to apply heat to the affected area to warm and relax the muscles. Massage can help alleviate the tense muscles and pain killers or anti-inflammatory medication can quickly alleviate pain and get you back to normal. You should also take a look at your posture and work environment. A few simple adjustments and a little awareness may be all it takes to rid yourself of your pain.
When problems do not resolve on their own you may need to seek help. An osteopath will take a holistic approach, looking at your whole body and the environment that you live and work in. They will carefully diagnose your problem and, assuming that your problem is amenable to osteopathic treatment, will manage your problem with a range of approaches, including ergonomic advice and exercises to strengthen and stretch specific muscles, alongside focussed treatment to enable the body to adapt to and recover from the cause of the problem.
If your pain persists for more than week, seek your osteopaths advice and always consult an expert if you have other symptoms such as trouble breathing or swallowing, or numbness, tingling, pain or weakness in the arms and legs, signs that there may be other causes to your pain.