Just like back pain affects many people, neck pain is something that millions of Americans will experience at some point in their lives too. Neck pain can cause plenty of trouble as well, from a stiff neck to severe, even debilitating discomfort.
A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Everyday activities are usually to blame, including bending over a desk for hours, having poor posture while watching TV or lifting something heavy, and sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
“When your neck is sore, you may have difficulty moving it, especially turning to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck,” says Timothy Peppers, MD, a spine surgeon at Scripps Clinic Encinitas. “The cause of the pain may be obvious if it starts right away, such as after falling while playing a sport.”
Neck pain that persists for a long period may be a sign of a more serious condition, Dr. Peppers says. But in most cases, neck pain and stiffness go away naturally within a week or so with some self-help treatment.
- For minor common causes of pain, take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Apply heat or ice to the painful area.
- Stop normal physical activity for the first few days to help calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
- Do slow range-of-motion exercises to help gently stretch the neck muscles.
- Try sleeping on a firm mattress with a pillow that supports your neck.
Pain that persists for a long period may be a sign of an underlying condition affecting the cervical spine, which helps support and move the neck.
Cervical spine disorders that can cause lasting neck pain include herniated discs and degenerative disc disease. The vertebrae in your spine are separated by discs, or fibrous pads with a soft, moist center that act as cushions between the bones.
“If your neck pain involves compression of nerves, you will most likely experience pain into your arm or may feel numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand,” Dr. Peppers says.
A herniated disc is one that has deteriorated, and its soft center can protrude into the surrounding area and put pressure on a nerve.
Degenerative disc disease is generally the breakdown of discs in the spine and can be due to aging, injury or loss of moisture in the discs. There is less cushioning to the vertebrae as a result and an increase in pressure on nearby joints, nerves and soft tissues.
If your neck pain continues after a week of self-care — this could include tingling and numbness that go beyond the neck — contact your primary care physician at least. Your physician may order X-rays to look for arthritis and bone diseases, or a CT or MRI scan to reveal any problems with the discs or nerves.
Often, a few sessions with a physical therapist may be all that’s needed. But if your neck pain continues, the next step may be getting an epidural steroid injection, which is typically administered by a pain management specialist. This step involves injecting a long-lasting steroid, such as cortisone, into the area that surrounds the spine and the nerves. The steroid reduces the inflammation of the nerves, which usually relieves the pain and other symptoms caused by the irritated nerve.
If your neck pain doesn’t go away, surgery may be required. For long now, the traditional approach has been a minimally invasive procedure that results in very little blood loss or trauma to the surrounding muscles and tissue.
Advances in technology have expanded treatment options for different spine conditions.
Scripps Health, for example, is a leader in artificial disc replacement, a surgical procedure designed to reduce neck or lower back pain as well as associated radiating limb pain due to degenerative disc disease, disc deterioration or injury. The procedure involves replacing the damaged or degenerated disc in the lower back or neck with an artificial implant.
“With this type of surgery and others, the goal is to restore the normal environment of the spinal cord and nerve roots,” Dr. Peppers says.
There are numerous options to help relieve cervical spine problems — and one steady recommendation: “Always remember, if your neck pain doesn’t go away on its own, call your doctor for an evaluation,” Dr. Pepper says.