A frequent complaint, neck pain can result from a variety of factors. It can be acute or chronic. The most predominant cause of pain is damage to the soft tissue of the neck and can occur because of overuse, or injuries such as whiplash. Pain can also be due to abnormalities such as birth defects, structural trauma (i.e. fractures), degenerative and inflammatory diseases, or prolonged wear and tear resulting in cervical disc degeneration or protrusion (herniated disc). With various postural stresses, the disc degenerates as we grow older (typically age 40 and up), creating less space between the bones and more friction. Less frequently, neck pain can be caused by tumors or infection. Emotional stress is also an important contributing factor. Neck pain often causes, or is a major contributor to headaches, shoulder, arm and back pain. The longer a person has pain, the more effort is needed to correct it.
Aggravating Factors: Inactivity is one of several aggravating factors for neck pain. As soft tissue becomes more stiff and inflexible through lack of activity, the circulation to the area is decreased. Dysfunctional biomechanics is another factor, with the prime contributor being the head-forward, rounded-shoulder posture. Fatigue directly affects our sense of well-being and is a contributor to pain. We are less prone to continuing our supportive postural habits and more inclined to slouch and have contracted posture when we’re tired. Further tightness in the soft tissues can be caused by emotional stress. Stress can also worsen existing neck tension. Environment is something many of us forget when assessing pain. Consider this — a cool draft on the neck can cause stiffness and discomfort, just as allergies, fumes or odors from smoke, paint or some household cleaning products can irritate the respiratory system and eyes, thereby causing surrounding soft tissue to tense as a defensive mechanism. Other elements, such as fibromyalgia and temporolmandibular dysfunction, can also be aggravating factors in neck pain.
Self-health Measures: Neck pain can be decreased or eliminated through a number of methods.
- If the pain does not subside or you experience tingling, numbness or sharp, shooting pain referrals to other areas of your body, then schedule an appointment to see a medical professional.
- Maintain supportive postural habits. Practice bringing your sternum up and contracting your lower abdominal muscles to bring your head and neck into better alignment while sitting or standing.
- If you wear eyeglasses, be sure your prescription is current or is adequate for your needs. If you spend large amounts of time at the computer, you may need special computer glasses.
- Computer monitors should be 18″ to 24″ away and the top line should be approximately at eye level.
- Strategically use pillows to adequately support your neck while sleeping.
- When reading, be sure to keep your light well-positioned to avoid undue neck rotation or strain.
- Keep your neck warm. In cooler weather this may mean wearing a turtleneck shirt, even to bed.
- Use of ice or heat or both to alleviate the pain and discomfort.
- Maintain gentle movements of the neck. Modify any stretching or other activities involving the neck to stay within your tolerance.
- Get some exercise, even if it is just a walk around the block. The increased circulation and endorphin level will help reduce the pain and bring much-needed nutrients and oxygen to the area. Consult with a qualified professional for appropriate strengthening exercises when you are ready.
- Find ways to manage stress. Mental and physical flexibility is a key factor here.
- If your pain is related to conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, there are support groups which may have information and tips on how to manage your pain.
- And of course, massage therapy can greatly relieve soft tissue tension. If pain is due to disc degeneration or herniation, decreasing muscle tightness will help alleviate pain caused by the pain-spasm-pain cycle.
By Jill Bielawski and Jerry Weinert
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2000.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
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