Even though it is difficult to measure, research has suggested the prevalence of neck pain in the general population to be as high as 62%. It is more common in women than men and it should come as no surprise that it is reported more in persons with mentally and physically stressful career.
Appreciating the complexity of neck pain is important if you want to manage it. It is multifactorial and challenging to treat.
Neck pain can be the result of many things. Pain can result from limited mobility, inadequate posture, mental stress, overuse, car accidents, trauma, poor sleeping postures, and countless others.
These sources can lead to various deficits in the neck itself. There can be muscle tightness, guarding, nerve impingement, disc herniation, inflammation and more. Again, it would be difficult to list all of the possibilities in this short blog.
It may sound strange, but the source of most neck pain is typically not the actual deficits. Instead, it is the reaction of the muscles that support the structures that are affected. Structural deficits can include disc herniations, nerve impingement and mechanical malfunctions. Muscles tend to contract in order to protect the deficit and will greatly limit the range of motion and cause significant pain. The delicate balance of the muscle system should be restored to reduce pain and improve function.
To add more complexity, consider that shoulder and upper back problems can also lead to neck pain. And then there are also pain referral patterns from other systems, such as the cardiovascular system, referring pain to the jaw, upper back and neck regions and the respiratory system that can add to stresses on certain neck muscles.
If you have had neck pain and tried strategies that did not work, it is most likely because the you did not address the source of the pain. The complexity of neck pain lies in discovering the actual source of the pain. Then, if it is muscular in nature, in full or in part, the cycle of imbalance must be interrupted.
The bad news is that neck pain, once experienced, is likely to return. This is certainly the case if you are not able to identify the cause and contributing factors. It may ease for a bit, only to return with the slightest turn of the head. The reality is that neck pain does not go away quietly and it does not stay away for long.
Unfortunately, this is too well known by those that suffer from neck pain. Dealing with it is a difficult process. Too often the first remedy for this chronic pain is medication. Pain killers and muscle relaxers mask pain or change the activity of muscles. They do not address the complex nature of the underlying problem.
There are other interventions out there.
Active interventions, such as specialized exercise programs can help correct the imbalances and reduce pain.
Simple stretching is not enough. And not all exercises should be about strengthening. If you have tried exercises and they have not worked, you probably have not been given an appropriate program.
If you have tried exercises and they do work, but once the pain is gone you decide to slack off, the pain will return. That is part of the chronicity. The exercises will only be effective as long as they are performed.
Just as the actual sources of neck pain are individualized, so should the interventions be. Not everything works for everyone. However, no matter what pain management measure you choose, it is important to recognize that this will require life-long management.
Let’s end with the good news!! Most of the time the sources of neck pain are identifiable and even manageable! Isn’t that wonderful???!!!
Once the source of the pain is identified, you can learn how to manage it. You are in control.
Interventions only work if you are consistent and responsible. That is true for exercise programs, stress management techniques, medication regimes and any other host of “cures” that are proposed. Most cases require more than one strategy to reduce neck pain.
Remember, your neck pain is not going to go away by itself, but it is manageable. Don’t give up. Contact your physical therapist today to help provide you with a complete examination and program to resolve your neck pain.