Neck pain can be caused by muscles which have been strained by poor posture or by overuse. Nerve compression by slipped discs or bone spurs (overgrowths) can also be the genesis of a pain in the neck. Osteoarthritis and neck trauma from sporting injuries as well as whiplash from motor vehicle accidents can also cause neck pain. Fibromyalgia, polymyalgia rheumatica, meningitis and cancer are other conditions which can also cause neck pain.
Symptoms of neck pain include a dull ache in the neck which can be worsened by turning the head. Other symptoms that may be associated with it include weakness of the arms and hands as well as numbness, tingling sensations and pains that shoot down the arm.
Diagnostic test for neck pain include x-rays of the cervical (neck) spine since these can show fractures, tumors, bone spurs, narrowing of the spaces between the spinal bones and other features of osteoarthritis. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also done to reveal the presence of herniated disks.
Electrodiagnostic studies that can be done on patients with neck pain include electromyography which evaluates whether the nerves that control the muscles are working normally. Nerve conduction studies are also used to help make the correct diagnosis.
Medications used to treat neck pain include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) since they reduce the pain and inflammation. Narcotics like codeine are prescribed for those with more severe pain. Heat and/or ice packs are also used to relieve the pain. These are usually applied for 20 minute durations several times during the day.
Muscle relaxants like zanaflex are given for those with spasms. Anti-inflammatory medications such as meloxicam are often used as well.
Trigger point injections are also used to treat neck pain. In this procedure the doctor injects a mixture of corticosteroids and local anesthetics into trigger points within the muscle. These are areas which irritate nerves because the muscle is in spasm. This procedure which is done in the doctor’s office, relieves the pain by making the trigger point inactive.
Surgery is usually reserved for those patients in whom compressed nerves cause severe pain, numbness or muscle weakness. In these operations the surgeons remove the disks or bone spurs that are pressing on the nerve.
Supportive treatment for neck pain includes physical therapy in which a structured exercise program is designed by a physical therapist to stretch and strengthen the muscles. Traction may be used to stretch the neck and keep it immobilized in order to relieve pain caused by nerve root irritation.
The treatment of neck pain is important since if not treated it can persist and cause chronic pain and a loss in economic productivity. A study even showed that around 50 percent of patients continue to have pain and disability five years after the diagnosis was made. Another study showed that patients with neck pain also tend to get trunk muscle dysfunction which can eventually lead to low back pain.
The latest research on neck pain which was published in The Spine Journal reveals that an observational registry can inform patients and their doctors about the prognosis of their chronic neck pain.
Support groups for patients with chronic pain include a Pain Management Group hosted by Bob Coates who can be reached by phone at 615 567 5786. This group meets at Clinical and Family Therapy Associates, 1205 Columbia Avenue, Franklin, Tennessee 37064.
The American Chronic Pain Association whose website is http://theacpa.org/ also offers valuable resources.