Neck Pain – Why and what can we do to help prevent it?
In the majority of cases, neck pain is down to mechanical stress to the neck. This could be from strains or sprains to the muscles or ligaments.
Degeneration is part of getting older which is unavoidable to a certain extent. However, there are certain things you can apply day to day, to help avoid the sprains and strains that come from the comparatively sedentary lifestyle to that of our ancestors.
General neck pain prevention tips
- Avoid slouching or a head-forward posture. Sit straight in your chair with your lower back supported, feet flat on the floor, and shoulders relaxed. Don’t sit for long periods without getting up or changing positions. Take short breaks several times an hour to stretch.
- Adjust your computer monitor so the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a document holder that puts your work at the same level as the screen.
- If you use the telephone a lot, use a headset or speaker phone. Don’t cradle the phone on your shoulder.
- Adjust the seat of your car to a more upright position that supports your head and lower back. Make sure that you are not reaching for the steering wheel while driving. Your arms should be in a slightly flexed, comfortable position.
For neck pain caused by sleep habits
- Use a pillow that keeps your neck straight. Special neck support pillows called cervical pillows or rolls may relieve neck stress. You can also fold a towel lengthwise into a pad that is 4 in. (10 cm) wide, wrap it around your neck, and pin it in position for good support.
- Don’t sleep on your stomache with your neck twisted or bent.
- If you read in bed, prop up the book so you aren’t using your arms to hold it up and bending your neck forward. Consider using a wedge-shaped pillow to support your arms and keep your neck in a neutral position.
Types and causes of neck pain include:
Nonspecific neck pain
This is the most common type. This is sometimes called ‘simple’ or ‘mechanical’ neck pain. Often the exact cause or origin of the pain is not known. It may include minor strains and sprains to muscles or ligaments in the neck. Bad posture may also be a contributing factor in some cases. For example, neck pain is more common in people who spend much of their working day at a desk, with a ‘bent-forward’ posture.
A ‘whiplash’ jolt to the neck
This is most commonly due to an accident involving a vehicle, such as a car crash.
Sudden-onset (acute) torticollis
This is sometimes called ‘wry neck’. A torticollis is a condition in which the head becomes twisted to one side and it is very painful to move the head back straight. The cause of acute primary torticollis is often not known.
However, it may be due to a minor strain or sprain to a muscle or ligament in the neck. Some cases may be due to certain muscles of the neck being exposed to cold (sleeping in a draught). It is common for people to go to bed feeling fine and to wake up the next morning with an acute torticollis. The pain usually eases and clears away, without any treatment, over a few days.
Occasionally, torticollis is due to more serious causes. See separate leaflet called Torticollis for more details.
Wear and tear (degeneration)
Wear and tear of the spinal bones (vertebrae) and the discs between the vertebrae is a common cause or recurring or persistent neck pain in older people. This is sometimes called cervical spondylosis.
However, most people over the age of 50 have some degree of degeneration (spondylosis) without getting neck pain.
When the root of a nerve is pressed on or damaged as it comes out from your spinal cord in your neck (cervical) region, the condition is known as cervical radiculopathy. As well as neck pain, there are symptoms such as loss of feeling (numbness), pins and needles, pain and weakness in parts of an arm supplied by the nerve. These other symptoms may actually be the main symptoms rather than neck pain.
The common causes of a radiculopathy are cervical spondylosis and a prolapsed disc. (A prolapsed disc is sometimes called a ‘slipped disc’ but the disc does not actually slip. What happens is that part of the inner softer area of the disc bulges out (prolapses) through the outer harder part of the disc, pressing on the nerve as it passes out of the vertebra.)