Neck Pain: What you need to know

Overview of neck pain

Neck pain is common, with around 70% of all people experiencing an episode of pain at some point. Most neck injuries occur during sports, recreational activities or even work-related tasks. You may be initially quite worried about neck pain, it is an area of the body that we all fear of injuring. The idea of permanent disability is rightfully quite concerning, however, the good news is most neck pain is usually not serious.

Symptoms of neck pain

The sensation of neck pain can be different depending on the underlying cause. You may have dull neck pain or severe, sharp neck pain. Some people even experience constant neck pain. You may have pain that spreads to the shoulders, upper back and even down the arms.

Pain comes in all different shapes and sizes, you may be experiencing,

Common causes of neck pain

Neck pain is often a source of distress and can leave you feeling quite frustrated. Most frequently it is caused by a strain or spasm of the muscles in the neck. This can be triggered by activities such as;

These types of injuries are extremely common but are treatable. You should seek the advice of a physiotherapist who can help alleviate your pain, and give you some strategies to strengthen your neck and back muscles. It is important to deal with these injuries quickly and before they become chronic.

More acutely, neck pain can develop from;

These more acute injuries do have the potential to be quite serious, so it is important to seek out appropriate medical advice if you are in severe pain. Your local physiotherapist can help you determine whether or not physiotherapy treatment is appropriate for you.

Top 5 neck injuries physio's treat

In our experience, we see a whole range of neck injuries, here is a list of the most common ones. If you are experiencing any of these injuries contact your local physiotherapist.

  1. Headaches

  2. Migraines

  3. Wry Neck

  4. Whiplash

  5. Nerve injury

Some of the sports and activities that lead to neck injuries include;

Rugby

Typically when playing rugby, the scrum can be a source of injury as there is a lot of load and pressure that goes through the neck. This can lead to disc injuries, concussions and sometimes ligament damage.

Cricket

In cricket, a neck injury is more likely to be present in the case of overuse and strain. This is common in fast bowlers particularly, as they will use a lot of force and muscle strength to release the ball.

Golf

Golf neck injuries are similar to cricket injuries as they are most likely caused by overuse. Golf is a sport requiring a lot of rotation and force. This combination can create one sided problems in the neck and further down the spine as well.

Gym / Weightlifting

Neck injuries in the gym are common, usually when there is either poor form or too much weight. You need to know your limits at the gym and always seek advice on proper lifting technique. Personal trainers and gym instructors are there to help you!

Neck pain treatment

Self treatment

In the case of most neck pain, you will be able to do some self treatment initially to help ease your pain. If you are unsure, it is best to seek medical advice.

Gentle exercises: there are a myriad of great resources out there that provide some excellent self guided exercise routines that you can follow along with. This is a good strategy to help relieve tension and stiff muscles.

Use heat and or cold

In acute pain, ice can be effective at reducing pain and swelling, heat can also be effective at reducing muscle tension. It may be helpful to actually use a combination of the two!

Make sure your posture is correct

There is no point in doing all of these stretches and techniques to then just flop on the couch in a horrible position for hours! Be aware of your posture and ensure that you stay active and moving throughout the day. A good tip would be to set an alarm every hour (especially on work days) to remind you to get up and move!

Use self-massage techniques

You may not be an expert physio or massage therapist, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have the magic touch when it comes to relieving some muscle tension.

Pain medication

If all of these self-guided tips don’t take the edge off the pain, you may need some added pain relief. Get advice from your pharmacist or GP on which medication may be appropriate for you!

Seeking medical care

In the event of a more serious neck injury, the smart move is to seek medical advice immediately. This is particularly important if you have been in a car accident or have had a fall. Your GP can advise you on the appropriate course of action, depending on their investigation.

Make an appointment with a physio

In most cases, neck injuries can be managed quite effectively by your local physiotherapist. You can ask your GP to refer you or you can search for a local physio in your area. You don’t need a referral to make an appointment with a physiotherapist.

Neck injuries can be frustrating and painful, but they don't have to be! A thorough assessment by your local physiotherapist is necessary to understand your neck injury and then determine the best course of action. Your physio will assess your history, and ask you some questions regarding your neck injury as well as your overall health. Be prepared to answer these questions and work with your physio to ensure the best outcome.

Treatment for neck pain will include;

A combination of treatment techniques will be utilised by your physiotherapist to give you the best outcome.

Frequently asked questions

Should I be concerned about neck pain?

The short answer is rarely! This article is really aimed at the majority of neck pain, which is treatable and not an emergency. If you have suffered a serious neck injury or suspect more serious issues like cancer/tumours then seek medical advice immediately. The good news is that over 96% of neck pain cases are treatable and non-threatening. A physiotherapist can advise you on the best course of action and help you return to a pain-free world.

How do I get my neck to stop hurting?

Step 1. Assess what are the aggravating factors for your neck pain and cease those activities immediately.

Step 2. Rest and do some gentle stretching and massage techniques

Step 3. Use ice and or heat to help with pain management

Step 4. Book an appointment with a physiotherapist to assess your injury

Anatomy of the neck

The spine is made up of 3 main components;

  1. vertebrae (bones) which provide the structure

  2. Discs that separate the vertebrae and absorb shock as you move

  3. Muscles and ligaments in the neck which provide support and allow for movement

The neck otherwise known as the cervical spine is made up of 7 vertebrae (C1-C7). The primary role of the neck is to support the head on the torso.

At the upper level of the neck, the atlas (C1) attaches to the occiput (head). This joint is unique as the anatomy of the C1 vertebrae is unlike any other in the neck or entire spinal column. C1 is a small flat ring-shaped vertebra that supports the head on top of the neck.

The C2 (or the axis) is a completely different shape again and is known as a peg-like vertebra. The unique shape of the C2 further stabilises the head on top of the cervical spine. C3-C7 are more uniform in shape and have the same function.

The muscles of the cervical spine play an important role in both stability and mobility.

The posterior muscles include:

These muscles are responsible for extension of the head as well as playing a role in stabilisation of the neck and head.

The anterior muscles include:

These muscles are responsible for flexion of the head and neck, as well as rotation of the neck when contracted unilaterally.

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