The human neck is made up of 7 bones, more commonly known as vertebrae, identified from top to bottom as C1 to C7. Only two of the cervical vertebrae have names: C1 is the Atlas, and C2 is the Axis. These seven bones protect the spinal cord, which runs from the bottom of the skull to the base of the torso, and is the conduit of the central nervous system. The cervical spine is also home to eight nerve roots, 32 muscles, six major ligaments, several smaller ligaments and a complex vascular system. Additionally, it is responsible for supporting the head, which can weigh up to 12 or more pounds.
Neck pain can range from annoying to debilitating, from mild to severe. It can be neurological, muscular, or skeletal in origin. It can require treatment as simple as rest and ice, or as extreme as surgery.
Diagnosing Simple Neck Pain
Diagnosis begins with simple questions. Was there an injury such as a fall or other trauma? When did the pain begin? Is the pain constant or sporadic? Once the causes of pain have been determined, the physician can begin recommending a course of treatment for the diagnosis.
One common source of neck pain is a strain or sprain, a problem of the neck’s supporting tissue. This is caused when a muscle or tendon that supports the vertebrae has been irritated or overused. Incorrect form when exercising can lead to a strain or sprain in the neck.
More commonly, though, sleeping in a cramped or incorrect position can be the root of neck pain. Oftentimes, using a pillow to properly support the neck and ensuring that the entire spine is resting in a neutral, rather than in a curved position, can alleviate much of the discomfort that develops as a result of cramped sleeping.
Furthermore, consulting a fitness professional to ensure proper form when performing exercises can also reduce or eliminate pain that stems from misalignment.
When Neck Pain Isn’t So Simple
Pain that is stems from more than a strain or a sprain can be much more difficult to diagnose, and more questions and tests can be required to pinpoint the actual problem. Given the complex structure of the human neck, medical practitioners must consider a number of conditions that range from structural injury to genetic conditions to accurately diagnose and treat patients.
Beyond poor posture, strain on the skeletal system from obesity, weak muscles, accidents, and injuries can wreak havoc on a person’s neck. Hyperextension or hyper-flexion, often referred to as whiplash, happens when the head is forcefully moved beyond its normal range of motion and results in a structural shift of the bones in the neck. The body’s response to this is to stabilize the head by contracting the muscles, which can cause fatigue, cramping and chronic neck pain.
Degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease can cause cervical pain that is mild or severe. Osteoarthritis is a deterioration of cartilage and discs between the bones. The body reacts to this deterioration by forming new bone, which can cause a buildup known as bone spurs. These painful areas inhibit joint movement and cause irritations that can result in neck pain. Degenerative Disc Disease occurs when the discs that cushion the space between the vertebrae become dehydrated, causing pain.
Neck Pain from Injury, Trauma or Disease
More serious causes of neck pain can be caused through trauma, such as a fracture or break of the vertebrae. Herniated discs, a bulging or rupture of the lining of the discs, puts pressure on nerves in the neck. They can be very painful and are often a result of an injury or accident. Tumors, types of bone cancers, or infection from meningitis may also be a factor.
In many instances, diagnosis and treatment can be achieved through technology such as x-ray, MRI or other radiographic imaging. Treatment can range from chiropractic to surgery, with pharmaceuticals often prescribed to help alleviate chronic discomfort.
Alternative Therapies for Neck Pain
In some instances, patients may experience neck pain that can’t be explained through injury, overuse, age, or disease. Stress can cause extreme muscle fatigue and tension, which is expressed as pain, sometimes extending up the head as a tension headache, or radiating across the shoulders.
Experts will sometime advise sufferers to seek out alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, and therapeutic massage to address pain that is believed to be an expression of emotional stress.
Because the neck is such a delicate and intricate area, any concern about mild or chronic pain should be referred to a physician at the first sign of distress.