Common causes of neck pain include acute and chronic cervical strain or sprain. Neck pain that develops from overuse—such as cradling the phone between the ear and shoulder or poor posture while working at a computer—is considered neck strain. A forceful injury, such as whiplash, constitutes a neck sprain. Both types of injury can be successfully managed with conservative treatment.
Persistent or recurrent neck pain, accompanied by numbness or tingling in the arms or fingers, suggests degenerative changes in the spine. Cervical spondylosis is a collective term describing the wear and tear of the joints. Degeneration of cervical discs and joints may appear in young adults but more commonly occurs after age 40.
- Arthritic disorders
- Herniated disc
- Vertebral compression fracture
- Injury to the bones, joints, or ligaments
- Disease (e.g., cancer, meningitis)
Varying degrees of pain, along with headache and stiffness, are common with soft tissue injuries. However, a stiff neck accompanied by high fever, nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light could indicate meningitis – a condition that requires immediate medical attention. Radiculopathy, or “pinched nerve,” refers to symptoms resulting from the compression of a nerve root. Herniated discs and/or degenerative changes alter the anatomy of the spine, affecting the nerve root branching out from the spinal cord. When the spinal cord itself is compressed or subjected to infection or disease, the symptoms that result are termed myelopathy.
Symptoms of radiculopathy include:
- Pain that radiates to the shoulder, shoulder blade, or down the arm
- Numbness and/or tingling in the arms or hands
- Weakness with or without muscle atrophy
Symptoms of myelopathy include:
- Loss of normal motor coordination in the arms or hands
- Difficulty with fine motor movements (e.g., writing, buttoning, using keys)
- Dropping objects (e.g., drinking glasses/coffee mugs)
- A feeling of heaviness or weakness in the affected arm or hand
- Disruption of walking gait or balance
- Tripping and/or falling
Dr. Stieber can often diagnose the cause of neck pain after reviewing symptoms and conducting a physical exam. Depending on the onset of pain and the severity of symptoms, imaging studies may be ordered. X-rays, CT/MRI, or EMG (electromyography) may be conducted to confirm a diagnosis or rule out other disorders. There are many surgical options to alleviate nerve pain, restore spinal stability, and relieve cord compression.
In most instances, surgery is not needed. A variety of treatments can help relieve neck pain symptoms. These include:
- Anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling and pain, muscle relaxants to calm spasms, or narcotics to alleviate acute pain
- Cold/heat therapy, especially during the first 24-48 hours following the onset of symptoms
- Soft cervical collar for support
- Physical therapy, which may include gentle massage, therapeutic exercise, or traction to decrease pain and increase function
For those patients who do ultimately require surgery, Dr. Stieber offers a variety of advanced treatment options, including minimally-disruptive surgical treatment and motion-preservation treatment options.