Chronic Neck Pain

Neck pain is so common that at least half of us will suffer from neck pain at some point in our lives. According to a recent survey in the UK of people aged 45 – 75 years, around one in four women and one in five men were currently suffering from neck pain.


Most of the time, neck pain will sort itself out, but when it lasts longer than three months, it is called chronic neck pain and should be seen to. Here we’ll take a look at the make up of the neck, possible causes and treatments of chronic neck pain.


Inside the neck


Understanding how the neck is made up can give us clues to what is wrong when we experience neck pain. The neck is comprised of the top seven vertebrae of the spine which are collectively called the cervical vertebrae. Intervertebral discs are found between each of the vertebrae which act like cushions or shock absorbers. These disks are made up of fibrous connective tissues which protect a gel-like centre.


At each disc level, nerves branch out from the spinal cord; in the case of the neck these nerves go to control arm movement. The vertebrae are connected by facet joints. Soft tissues in the area include ligaments and muscles that are connected to the spine and fan out over the shoulder blades and control head movement.


Causes of Chronic Neck Pain


The most common type of neck pain is called ‘mechanical’ neck pain and it is also sometimes called ‘simple’ or ‘non-specific’ neck pain. This kind of pain can come from a variety of different causes, such as spraining or having a minor injury to the muscles of the neck or something as simple as bad posture.


Those that spend a great deal of time bent over a desk reading or writing may experience this sort of pain. Often the cause of the pain is difficult to pinpoint and problems may not even appear in an x-ray or a CT scan.


Chronic neck pain could be the result of a whiplash injury, as is often seen after a rear-end car collision. Whiplash occurs when the body is forced forwards and the head is suddenly snapped backwards.


While whiplash does have the potential to be very dangerous, the danger has been largely decreased today thanks to seatbelts and headrests, and most people to suffer from it do recover, although it may take several months.


Chronic neck pain can also be an unfortunate result of getting older. As we age, the interbertebral discs that protect the vertebrae can lose their liquid and become smaller, forcing the bones of the spine closer together. This can put pressure on the facet joints and even on the spinal cord and nerve roots.


Diagnosis and Treatment of Chronic Neck Pain


If you have been suffering from neck pain for over three months, you should make an appointment to see your doctor, especially if the pain is getting worse over time. Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on your medical history, a physical examination, and perhaps a further test such as an MRI or CT scan.


Treatment will depend on the diagnosis, but for mechanical neck pain it could be as simple as improving your posture and prescribing paracetamol or stronger anti-inflammatory and pain medications. Alternative therapy such as acupuncture has been noted as being helpful. Surgery is reserved for only the most severe problems.