The Ultimate Guide to Neck Pain
Neck pain affects nearly everyone, with one in three people experiencing it once a year. Symptoms like a clicking neck, neck crunching, or pain at the back of the head are common but concerning. While some of these pains go away naturally, physio treatment may be needed to ease most, if not all of the pain.
The neck is a vulnerable structure charged with supporting a very heavy and mobile head. Its bones, muscles, nerves, and even the disks found between the vertebrae can be easily subjected to injury or strain. Holding the head in prolonged positions, like when sitting in front of a computer or while cycling can cause tendon or ligament sprains.
While these injuries can heal quickly, some pain in the neck can last for years. A visit to a physiotherapy centre can be significantly beneficial as these kinds of pains can reduce your quality of life by affecting sleep, concentration, vision, and can even generate more pain such as headaches.
In this in-depth guide, we will dig into the true causes of neck pain, the source of neck crunches, and how you can best protect and relieve your neck from pain.
What does neck pain feel like?
Neck pain is often felt in or around the cervical spine. Axial neck pain is mostly felt in the neck while radicular neck pain can reach as far as the shoulders or arms. Some people experience it as a stabbing, burning pain or as a persistent ache. It can cause increased sensitivity to mild pressure, and it can also be paired with tingling in the arms or headaches. You may also notice holding more tension in your neck or a tightening of the neck muscles.
When is neck pain serious?
While neck pain is extremely common, it can still be an indicator of something more dangerous or life-threatening. In some cases, the pain can be a sign of a medical emergency.
Take seriously if you notice it:
After having an accident
Combined with dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or incontinence
Occurring with numbness, weakness, or loss of coordination in the limbs
As a rule, if any neck pain doesn't subside after one week, contact your doctor.
What causes neck pain?
There are two main types of neck pain: acute and chronic.
Acute neck pain is most common and is often the result of strains and sprains from overuse or overextension. This kind of pain is short term, lasting for only a few days or weeks. You can get this easily by sleeping in an awkward position or by having poor posture. People are also increasingly being affected by the ‘tech neck’ phenomenon, a symptom of repetitive trauma to soft tissues in the neck from looking downward at a phone or tablet.
Acute neck pain is also commonly caused by turning the head in repetitive motions while doing activities like swimming or dancing. Trauma from sports collisions or whiplash from an accident can also result in acute neck pain.
Chronic neck pain lasts longer, from a few months to years. It’s a symptom of prolonged wear-and-tear or spinal degeneration. This neck pain is often caused by ageing and degenerative conditions such as Osteoarthritis. It’s the most common form of chronic neck pain and happens as joint cartilage is worn down.
Some other causes of neck pain may be herniated discs, pinched nerves, or even from growths like bone spurs or tumours. Most neck pain, however, can come from unexpected sources, like emotional or mental stress.
Neck pain as a symptom of stress is often experienced as an ache at the base of the skull. This ‘tension headache’ is the consequence of tense muscles building on trigger points. These headaches come across as a dull heaviness, starting with pain at the back of the head and eventually spreading through the neck, to the back of the shoulders, and even as a band across the eyes.
A tension headache is known as episodic if it lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. When it lasts for more than 15 times a month for at least three months in a row, it’s known as a chronic tension headache. While over-the-counter pain medicine can help, you may want to seek advice from a physiotherapist in order to achieve neck pain relief, especially if the pain is paired with a clicking neck.
Neck crunching, neck clicking, and neck cracking
There is nothing quite as alarming as a loud clicking neck with a turning head. These sounds can come at random moments or be brought upon intentionally in an attempt to relieve neck pain, but are they something you should be worried about?
Crunching, clicking, or cracking sounds are often due to the lubricant fluid that surrounds the seven vertebrae and joints found in the neck. When rapid movements or fast turns impact the neck, there can be a release of natural gas found in the fluid. The resulting sound is often so loud because of how close the joints are to the ears. These sounds can be harmless. However, there could be cause for concern if your neck crunching is accompanied by pain, if it’s consistent, or if it makes you feel dizzy or nauseous. It is not recommended to deliberately click your neck. Applying rapid forces in the rotation of the neck can be incredibly dangerous and harmful and may lead to stroke, paralysis, or even death.
How can you prevent neck pain?
A lot of neck pain can be prevented by how you sleep at night. In general, investing in a good pillow and sleeping on your back can be the best ways to keep your neck and spine aligned and comfortable. A good night’s sleep can also help reduce your stress level and prevent tension headaches.
Practising good posture is also important. Try to keep your head centred over your spine while on the phone or working at a desk. If you travel long distances or work long hours at your computer, take frequent breaks to move around and stretch.
You can also practice a healthier lifestyle. Lower your risk of neck pain by quitting smoking since it damages the bone structure and slows healing. Pick up a yoga or Pilates habit instead. These practices can prevent neck pain by reducing your stress level while strengthening the muscles around your neck.
Neck pain exercises
There are also some exercises and gentle stretches you can do if you’re already experiencing neck pain. You can:
Gently tilt your head side-to-side, leading your ear to the shoulder and holding for five seconds.
Turn your head side-to-side, keeping your chin at the same height, tensing your neck muscles, and holding for five seconds
Tilt your head up and down, keeping good posture and leading with your chin down to your chest
Extend your shoulders by straightening your body, pushing your neck forward, and pulling your shoulders together in alignment
How can neck pain be treated?
Aside from neck pain exercises, acute neck pain can be treated with some at-home remedies such as heat or ice-packs, taking over the counter medicines to relieve pain and inflammation, or resting.
Although treatment for neck pain can differ depending on what the cause for the pain is, physiotherapy is considered to be one of the most helpful remedies overall. There are passive physical therapies like electrotherapy, massage, and ultrasound that can help with swelling and pain, increase blood circulation and relaxation, and repair tissues. Other treatments may include active exercises that directly support muscles attached to the cervical spine and accelerate the healing rate.
Benefits of physiotherapy for neck pain
Physiotherapy can extend beyond what medication can achieve for neck pain relief. It can provide effective and long-lasting results, especially if the pain has been lingering for months. Physiotherapy uses both passive physical therapy and active exercises in order to eliminate stiffness and aches from the muscles and enhance mobility. Regular physiotherapy practice can prevent chronic pain and help you get back to a pain-free life.
If your neck pain is constant or concerns you, don’t hesitate to book an appointment at one of our physiotherapy London clinics or call +44 (0)203 893 5100 to book a free 15-minute consultation with an experienced physiotherapist.