Chances are, you’ve experienced neck pain at some point in your life. While neck pain is usually temporary, it can be caused by numerous factors. Here’s what you should know.
Common causes of neck pain
- Arthritis in the joints
- Trauma — whiplash, falls or lifting injuries
- Minor instances like posture issues such as sleeping position or turning the neck quickly
Symptoms that often accompany neck pain include:
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness in the arms or legs
- Shooting pain into the arms or legs
- Occasional effect on the ability to control bowel or bladder function
Keep in mind that symptoms vary depending on the cause. Usually, a pinched nerve will be associated with pain, weakness or numbness shooting down the arm — but it can also cause pain in the neck muscles or around the shoulder blades. Degenerative changes, or osteoarthritis of the spine, can cause similar symptoms but are less often associated with the symptoms into the arm.
If you are experiencing these symptoms of shooting pain in the arms or legs,this could indicate that there is nerve irritation from some source. These symptoms can also happen if the spinal cord is pinched.
Be particularly observant for weakness in specific muscles so it can be passed on to your doctor — and if the weakness is progressive, let them know right away.
What’s causing your neck pain?
If the pain is not obviously caused by an injury or accident, we try to identify the source by obtaining a history. The more specific you can be with your doctor about the timing and onset of events, the more your doctor can help you sort out the source of the pain. Often, we just do not know the exact event. We can do workups with imaging and other tests to see if we can identify the specific anatomic problem that is causing your pain.
Bacterial infections or, sometimes, viral infections can be the source. Bacterial infections are usually associated with fevers. If you’re experiencing severe spine pain and a fever, see a doctor right away. A rash in combination with the pain can suggest a virus as a possible source. In this case, we will get MRI or CT scans and evaluate for infections via blood tests.
Can certain sleeping positions cause neck pain?
It is difficult to make definitive statements about sleeping positions since everyone is different. I usually recommend trying to sleep with your neck in a neutral position — without bending it forward, backwards or to the sides.
Since sleeping is so individual, there is no “one size fits all” position. If you wake up with pain, you may want to think about trying a softer or harder pillow and try to ascertain if you sleep with extreme neck bending.
How to get rid of neck pain
As long as you are not having fever or progression of symptoms, it’s a good idea to take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and start doing some home exercises. You can get effective ones from a physical therapy program, a trusted source online or your primary care doctor. Consult with your primary care physician if they have recommended caution with these medications in the past.
Avoid activities that aggravate the symptoms. I usually tell patients to:
- Avoid heavy activities with the upper body
- Avoid repetitive activities
- Avoid lifting
- Avoid aerobic exercises that cause impact (like running)
Activities like walking or using the elliptical that cause less impact are usually better. Be observant about the activities that seem to result in worsening symptoms and try to avoid them.
If your symptoms do not go away in a few weeks, talk to your doctor, especially if there is weakness or paralysis. If your symptoms are worsening, that should also prompt a visit to the doctor. Persistent tingling and numbness in the arms or legs or progressive symptoms should be evaluated as well.
Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy. Furthermore, injections or surgery may be a last resort for some problems.
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