An introduction to the causes of neck pain
There is a wide range of causes of neck pain. Often it is difficult to tell what the precise cause might be without examining your signs and symptoms, their severity, and how long they have been present. Below is a description of some of the most likely causes of neck pain.
This is the most common cause of neck pain. Most of us will have experienced episodes of muscle strain in our neck or shoulders, sometimes referred to as a ‘crick in the neck’.
A stiff neck is almost always an ‘acute’ problem. The pain comes suddenly (typically, we wake up in the morning with it) and tends to resolve within one week. It is often caused by maintaining bad posture for too long such as when sleeping in an awkward position, a long drive or working at a computer for longer than you are accustomed to. Spasms in the muscles of the neck and shoulders make the pain worse and this limits movement in the neck and upper part of the spine.
Whiplash injuries are also included in this category of muscular or soft tissue problems. It is particularly common in car accidents or similar situations, where being hit from behind seems to result in the worst cases where your body is flung forward and then back. This stretches the soft tissue in the neck beyond what they are designed to do, often leading to tears in the muscles or ligaments. If you have been involved in an accident, then it is important to seek medical attention straight away, as it is easy to structurally damage your spine.
A stiff neck can make normal everyday tasks more difficult – for instance, take special care when driving to make sure you can turn your head sufficiently to see the traffic around (and behind you), especially as you pull out of junctions.
This is a common cause of neck pain. As your body reacts to stress, your muscles become tense. If you stress a lot, this tension can cause the muscles to stay tightened and begin to ‘knot.’ Stressing for a few minutes occasionally is unlikely to lead to neck pain, but for people who find themselves feeling ‘stressed’ for a large portion of their day, the chances are high that they will experience neck pain at some point in their life.
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Arthritis is a problem which arises because of inflammation in the joints, and can affect any part of the body. Arthritis affecting the upper spine can lead to pain in the neck and shoulders. There are 2 forms of arthritis:
- Osteoarthritis is also known as ‘wear and tear’ arthritis. It is caused by overuse or overworking of the joints and tends to be more frequent as you get older. In the past, it has been referred to as rheumatism. Often, there is no obvious cause for this ‘overwork’ and the condition occurs because of metabolic, dietary or lifestyle reasons, as bones and joints start to decay and wear away before their time. Osteoarthritis typically affects the large weight-bearing joints, muscles and soft tissue of the body (such as the hips or knees) but can also affect the upper spine and neck, where it is known as cervical spondylosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition which affects the smaller joints of the body, including the small joints of the neck bones. Rheumatoid arthritis may affect people of any age and all parts of the body can be involved. When the bones of the neck become inflamed, the result is a stiff and painful neck.
Neck pain can arise from problems in the spine. In general, these are all major health concerns which should be managed by a healthcare professional.
- A slipped disc is the colloquial name for spinal disc herniation although medically speaking, spinal discs are unable to ‘slip.’ However, what can happen is that the outer part of a disc can rupture, allowing the inner gel-like substance to leak out and put pressure on the spinal column. Although this condition more often than not affects the lower part of the vertebral column resulting in lower back pain, it can also cause upper back or neck pain.
- A trapped nerve is when the space through which a nerve travels becomes smaller and begins to put pressure on the nerve. Where the nerve is trapped will determine the area of the body where you experience pain. You may also find that you are struggling to perform some movements or experience weakness or numbness
- In some relatively rare cases, neck pain may be a sign of a tumour, either benign or malignant. A tumour begins when the normal cells multiply too quickly and a mass of abnormal tissue appears. If this tissue does not invade other tissue structures or spread to other parts of the body, it is called a benign tumour, and if it does, then it is called a malignant tumour. Whatever the case, a tumour in the area of the neck can press onto nerves as well as other tissues causing neck pain.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can lead to stiffness and pain in the neck.
Meningitis is classed as a medical emergency. The inflammation lies within tissue surrounding the brain, which can lead to life-threatening or permanent problems. It is important to seek medical attention straight away if you suspect meningitis.
Other symptoms of meningitis include:
- A flu-like feeling or general feeling of being unwell
- Neck pain or difficulty bending the neck forward
- Severe headache and / or vomiting
- A skin rash which does not fade when you press it with a glass or a finger
- Needing to lie in a dark room as light bothers the eyes