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Neck pain: symptoms, causes and treatments

Neck pain: symptoms, causes and treatments


Neck pain is a very common complaint, particularly amongst those who work in front of the computer all day. Neck pain can present in a number of different ways. The main symptoms tend to be increased pain with neck rotation, static postures, headaches and sometimes pain referring from the neck, down into the shoulder or arm. Approximately 2 in 3 people suffer from a bout of neck pain at some stage during their lives.

The main types of neck pain are acute wry neck, whiplash, or degenerative. Most often neck pain is non-specific where there is no particular structure causing the pain.

Non-specific neck pain is the most common type of pain. Poor posture and pronlonged static postures such as looking at a computer, driving or reading is normally what triggers this non-specific mechanical neck pain. The pain is thought to be caused by a combination of muscle tightness and inflammation, joint stiffness and weakness of the muscles supporting the neck. Non-specific neck pain can also present due to increased stress causing increased tension and tightness of muscles in the neck and shoulders, in particular the trapezius muscles.

Acute wry neck occurs as a result of holding the neck in one position for a long period of time, moving the neck awkwardly, or sometimes the cause is unknown. With wry neck, patients present with unilateral neck pain, and often the neck is rotated to one side and stuck in this position. There is often an associated muscle spasm. This type of neck pain tends to resolve relatively quickly.

Whiplash, normally occurs as a result of a MVA. Individuals normally experience a sudden impact where the neck is forced forwards into end range flexion, then backwards into end range extension. This can stretch and sometimes tear muscles and ligaments of the neck, resulting in instability of the neck. Pain often presents a day or two after the accident as the muscles begin to spasm and joints stiffen up.

Degenerative changes tend to occur in those who are in their late 40’s/early 50’s. This is a normal part of the ageing process but can vary form person to person, sometimes depending on posture, profession or sporting activity. Discs can dry out and provide less cushioning and shock absorption. Joint surfaces can become uneven and develop boney growths called osteophytes. This all leads to poor intervertebral joint movement and a reduction in range of motion and subsequent pain.

Treatment of neck pain varies depending on the type of neck pain a patient presents with. The initial goal of treatment is always to reduce pain and increase range of motion. This can be achieved through the use of soft tissue release, passive neck mobilisation and joint mobilisation. Taping can also be effective in offloading irritated muscles and joints, while promoting improved posture. Once adequate range of motion has been restored, treatment should focus on improved deep neck flexor strength, scapular and upper back strength in order to prevent reoccurrence of the pain. If the neck pain is suspected to have been caused as a result of work postures, an ergonomic assessment may be recommended, again to prevent reoccurrence.

If you have been experiencing neck pain that is either acute or more chronic in nature, contact us here to see one of our experienced physiotherapists. We can also organise an ergonomic assessment to be carried out if you suspect your work station is contributing to your neck pain.

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