the science behind neck pain

The Science Behind Neck Pain

Did you know that when you bend your neck to look at your phone, you’re placing 60 pounds of pressure on your cervical spine?

Imagine the damage you are causing to your neck, then.

Nearly everyone now owns a smartphone. It’s not uncommon to witness people everywhere with their eyes down, glued to their phones.  

Even when you tilt your head just 15 degrees to browse your phone or send texts, you’re putting pressure on your neck. In time, this can cause chronic neck and shoulder pain.

Neck and shoulder pain is more prevalent in industrialized societies due to work-related factors. Work is very much dominated by computers and technology, and most people aren’t aware of the serious damage that an unergonomic work station can have on the neck over time.

Manual labor, heavy lifting, use of vibrating equipment, and driving are also factors that trigger neck pain.

Chronic neck pain can be costly. Pain medication, physical treatments, and time off sick from work can add up.

We all need to understand our anatomy better and learn how to prevent developing painful necks. 

The Source of Neck Pain

The neck, otherwise known as the cervical spine, is an example of amazing design. There are seven vertebrae in the cervical spine – C1 at the base, C7 at the top – and 8 nerve roots.

Vertebrae are perfectly engineered with muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments so they amply support the head. Incredibly, the anatomical structures work seamlessly together to promote a wide range of movement.

Unfortunately, vertebrae and ligaments can wear down or become injured, resulting in neck pain and pain radiation along the arm.

Acute (temporary) neck pain is typically the result of a torn neck ligament or muscle. If the muscles spasm, this can cause intense pain. Neck pain that persists beyond 3 or 6 months is classed as chronic neck pain. 

The vertebrae are connected to facet joints and intervertebral disks. The facet joints provide a restricted range of motion, while the intervertebral discs provide cushioning between the vertebrae.

Facet Joints

The joints that attach to your vertebrae are protected by cartilage. If the cartilage degenerates this can cause considerable pain as the joints rub together.

When the cartilage deteriorates, spurs or osteophytes begin to grow from the bone in an attempt to provide some stability. Then, as the joints rub together they become inflamed and stiff.

Intervertebral Disks

Intervertebral disks can become painful if they deteriorate or rupture (herniate). Also, degenerated disks provide less support for the vertebrae and start to compress the nerves. Root nerve compression causes pain, tingling, and numbness to radiate from the neck down to the arm. This is called cervical radiculopathy.

Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve)

When a nerve root in the cervical spine gets inflamed or damaged it causes symptoms including:

  • Numbness
  • Changed reflexes
  • Weakness
  • Radial pain through the shoulders, and down the arms, hands, and fingers

Cervical radiculopathy can get seriously painful. For some, incidents are especially severe at night.

Can Cervical Radiculopathy Be Treated?

Yes, cervical radiculopathy can be treated. 85% of sufferers are treated successfully without surgery.

As this condition is caused primarily by inflammation, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections are used to improve symptoms.

Surgery should only be a last resort, as it can create further health complications.

Surgical treatments for cervical radiculopathy aim to relieve pressure, realign the spine, and improve range of motion.

There are three options for surgery:

  • Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF)
  • Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR)
  • Posterior Cervical Laminoforaminotomy

Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF)

This is the most common surgical procedure for this condition. It involves removing the disk or bone spurs. The vertebrae are then fused together with bone grafts.

This operation is performed from the front. The surgeon makes a 1 to 2-inch incision along the neck crease, then removes the vertebrae or spurs. This procedure certainly sounds daunting, but it leaves a gap for nerves and relieves pressure.

Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR)

Just like a hip or knee replacement, an ADR replaces vertebrae. The artificial vertebrae are typically made of metal or plastic.

This surgery is performed in the same way as the ACDF procedure, via an incision along the crease of the neck.

Posterior Cervical Laminoforaminotomy

The posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy procedure also removes problematic bone and spurs, but surgery is performed from behind the patient.

This procedure doesn’t need a bone fusion, so the downtime is much shorter than the other two procedures.

Risks of Surgery

Of course, no one likes having surgery as there is always an element of risk.

Understandably, you may be anxious about a potential spine or nerve injury. There’s also the possibility that you undergo surgery only to find it doesn’t relieve symptoms.

With disk replacements, there is the potential risk of screws breaking, loosening, or misplacing, which would require further surgery to correct.

Other possible risks include difficulty breathing, injured esophagus, or voice changes.

Success of Surgery

Although these procedures sound daunting, the majority are successful.  

Cervical Myelopathy and Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy

Degeneration of the invertebrate disks can also cause compression of the spinal cord causing a painful neck condition called cervical myelopathy or cervical spondylotic myelopathy.

Symptoms of Cervical Myelopathy

There are two main types of symptoms with cervical myelopathy – neck pain and radial pain.

Symptoms include:

  • Neck pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Restricted motion

If left untreated, the symptoms can progress, causing pain that shoots down the spine.

Other symptoms can also develop, such as:

  • Weakness
  • Shooting pains
  • Problems with coordination
  • Clumsy hands
  • Problems with fine motor skills

Treatment of Cervical Myelopathy

Non-surgical treatment of cervical myelopathy entails reducing inflammation of the root nerve and spinal cord. Inflammation is reduced by immobilizing the neck with a brace, anti-inflammatory medicine, and physical therapy.

If symptoms progress or don’t improve after 4 to 6 weeks surgery is recommended.

Surgery aims to relieve pressure on the invertebrate disks by removing part of the vertebrae.

Most Common Causes of Neck Pain

Common neck pain issues typically stem from poor posture habits.

Looking Down

Most people spend a lot of time looking down at their phones, drive with their heads leaning forward, or stare down at a laptop.

Looking down may seem insignificant, but continuously looking down over time can cause damage to your neck causing a range of problems such as:

  • Neck pain
  • Muscle spasm
  • Arthritis

Text Neck Overuse Syndrome

Try to set your workspace up ergonomically so you aren’t looking down at your screen.

Also, limit the amount of time you spend looking at your phone.

Smoking and Nicotine

Long term smoking can cause degeneration of the invertebrate disks that cushion your vertebrae.

Smoking damages the blood vessels that supply nutrients to your invertebrate disks, which can accelerate degeneration. Your disks need a healthy oxygenated blood supply to stay healthy and continue to protect your neck.

Quitting smoking is vital not just to protect your neck but your overall health. If you kick the habit you’ll save money, save your health, and prevent chronic neck pain.

Sleeping On Your Stomach

If you naturally tend to sleep on your stomach, you’re putting your neck at further risk. When you sleep on your stomach, you naturally turn your head, and this places stress on your neck. Try to train yourself to sleep on your side or back.

It may feel unusual at first, but you can adjust your sleeping habits. Every time you catch yourself lying on your stomach, turn over onto your side or back. By correcting your sleeping position, you’ll subconsciously avoid turning onto your stomach.

It will help enormously if you get a thick pillow to make side-sleeping easier. You could also try sewing a tennis ball into the back of your nightclothes.

If you are simply unable to sleep on your side or back, try sleeping without a pillow or a very thin pillow.

Other Causes of Neck Pain

Typically, neck pain is caused by postural lifestyle issues that can be easily prevented. In some cases, though, neck pain could indicate a more serious underlying health issue.

Meningitis

Meningitis symptoms include fever, headache, and neck pain due to inflammation in the tissues around the spinal cord and brain. If you or someone else displays these symptoms, it’s wise to seek medical help.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a mysterious condition that isn’t very well understood. This is a neuropathic condition that causes pain around the neck and shoulders.

Heart Attack

Sometimes, neck pain could be a symptom of a heart attack. But, it is can only possibly be a heart attack if symptoms include:

Difficulty breathing

  • Vomiting
  • Arm pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Profuse sweating

Tumor

In some cases, there could be something serious like a tumor growing on the spinal cord which creates pressure. However, this is a rare occurrence.

Injury

You can end up with neck pain from sudden movements during sports, or even while doing manual labor. In this case, it will most likely clear up in a few days or weeks as you may just sprain or tear a muscle or tendon.

Diagnosing the Cause of Neck Pain

If you have neck pain that persists for a couple of weeks it’s time to see a doctor. You should let your doctor know if you have had any accidents, or if you have done any specific activities that might be causing the pain.

For example, are you using your smartphone a lot? Have you started working on a new desk? Are you doing a lot of drawing or handwriting?

The doctor will examine your neck and check the alignment of your spine. Further testing may be required and you might need:

  • A blood test
  • An MRI scan
  • A CT scan
  • Electromyography (a test of your muscles and nerves)

Once your doctor has ascertained what is causing your neck pain, then you can get the correct course of treatment.

Hopefully, the source of your neck pain isn’t too serious and you might just need some medicine and physio.

Treating Neck Pain at Home

To soothe frustrating and agonizing neck pain try these at-home remedies. They may not get rid of the pain altogether but they can provide some temporary relief.

Hold and Cold Therapy

Try placing ice or a pack of frozen peas on the painful area for around 15 minutes, then replace it with a hot water bottle. The transition from hot to cold can help to soothe the pain.

Take Anti-Inflammatories

As we mentioned before, neck pain is sometimes caused by inflammation, so try taking ibuprofen as it’s effective. A healthy diet full of vitamins and minerals can also help to reduce inflammation, as well as drinking plenty of freshwater.

Practice Good Posture

Keep your back straight and your shoulders back to avoid placing unnecessary stress on your neck.

Put Your Phone Down

Cell phones are major culprits for neck pain. Never hold the phone between your shoulder and ear. This puts your neck out of alignment and can cause a cricked neck.

You may want to use your phone on loudspeaker, or use earphones to free up your hands.

Limit your time on social media. This is perhaps the greatest culprit of text-neck-overuse syndrome. It’s easy to get sucked into constant scrolling. Most of us aren’t aware that we’re heading for future neck pain.

Take Time Out

If you’re always working at a computer, make sure you take time out to loosen your joints and change your position. Continuously hunching over a computer is not going to do your neck or your back any good.

Final Thoughts

If you didn’t already, maybe now it’s time to reassess your lifestyle to prevent neck pain from developing.

If you already experience neck pain try to work out how much time you spend on your phone or a computer. Chances are you’re unconsciously creating damage to your neck.

Give up smoking, train yourself to sleep on your side or back and put that phone down!