Neck pain is one of the most common complaints we experience in our lifetime. We may simply wake up in the morning with neck pain, often with no cause, or experience pain at the end of a strenuous day at work.
Healthy software engineers or other people involved in desk jobs in their third decade to elderly beyond 60 years of age, suffer from this common condition, and very rarely is it associated with any serious underlying problem. People are worried that they have ‘spondylosis’ even when they get a whip of pain in the neck. Young people may not realise that it is simply due to pain from a ‘tired muscle’ of the neck, which is over working to hold their head above the shoulders to face the monitor for more than eight hours a day.
The complaints can range from mild discomfort to severe burning pain. It can be acute with sudden onset and intense in nature. It can also be a chronic dull ache when the pain lasts for more than three months.
The causes of neck pain may be:
- Mechanical or muscular problems
- Ageing process (arthritis, spondylosis)
- A pinched nerve caused by disc bulge
- Infection and tumours are rare causes
Posture and neck pain
Head normally weighs approximately four to five kilograms, and it is supported on the upper body with the help of neck muscles which constantly work together. If the head or neck is abnormally positioned or injured, stabilising and supporting function of the neck muscles is lost, resulting in neck pain. If you are slouching your neck, like when typing on the keyboard, the muscles around the neck must work hard to stabilise and support the head.
Other common symptoms
The patient feels diffused pain in the neck area, along with stiffness in the neck. They may also feel pain in one or both shoulders going down to the hands and fingers. Commonly, people experience discomfort between the shoulder blades and also over the front of the chest, which at times can be confused with heart pain. When the pain is severe, one may experience headache particularly in the back of the head. In addition, one can feel dizziness and reeling sensation.
Sometimes acute neck pain causes spasm in the neck muscles resulting in abnormal neck posture in which the head is forced to one side; this is referred to as torticollis. On rare occasions patients might complain of abnormal sensation or loss of sensation, and weakness in the arms and legs.
Warning signs of neck pain
- Severe pain in the neck for more than six weeks with no improvement.
- Sudden onset of weakness and loss of sensation in upper and lower limbs.
- Unsteady gait along with neck pain.
- Weight loss, unexplained fever or chills with headache, and inability to bend the neck.
- Loss of bladder and bowel control.
- Feeling generally unwell.
- If you notice any of these warning signs, report immediately to emergency or your local doctor.
What can you do to help yourself?
Usually neck pain is not associated with any serious condition and often gets resolved within a week’s time.
- Keep the neck mobile and active, except when the pain is very acute.
- Try to go through your normal routine and work, but do not over exert yourself.
- Maintain proper posture by keeping your head high.
- Consult your orthopaedician or GP who could suggest you basic analgesics, local gels and exercises.
- There is nothing like sleeping on the floor with no pillows etc. to manage neck pain. A soft pillow, which is reasonably firm and thick (height), is much better on the neck contour to keep the neck rested in a proper way, rather than having nothing under the head and neck.
- Rest to ease the pain in the beginning.
- Painkillers and local gels.
- Hot and cold packs.
- Neck collars for short duration.
- Physiotherapy is a good adjuvant treatment and the therapist can advise you on the posture, movements and exercises, in addition to using some local pain relief measures. We believe that the most important aspect in the management or prevention of neck pain is to maintain a proper neck posture during work and to keep the neck muscles fit with regular exercises. Specific exercises are designed to strengthen the muscles around the neck, which help to stabilise and to keep the head held high.