Neck pain, a common affliction, is no reason to keep your head down. Here's what you need to know about neck aches and pains.
1. THE CAUSES
"Minor neck pain is extremely common and can be attributed to sleeping in an uncomfortable position, poor posture, excessive use, or other causes of a simple muscle spasm," said Dr. Brian Durkin, director of Stony Brook Medicine's Center for Pain Management and an associate professor of anesthesiology at Stony Brook University.
To understand why neck pain occurs, consider the body's anatomy. "Our necks support our heads, and there are several muscles that support the bony structures making the connection and are vulnerable to spasm," Durkin explained. "Our heads are relatively large in comparison to our necks."
2. IT COULD BE MORE THAN SORE MUSCLES
See a physician after any trauma, but especially something like a motor vehicle accident or a fall, Durkin advised. Neck pain after such an injury might be indicative of other medical issues.
"Neck pain after a trauma could be related to an injury to the main arteries that supply blood to our brains," he said, adding that a doctor can check that by listening to the arteries with a stethoscope. "Major damage to the spinal cord should be evaluated by a physical exam, looking for signs of damage and possibly getting imaging studies done to confirm any suspicious exam findings. Finally, coronary artery disease may manifest as radiating pain to the neck, and a cardiac work-up would then be indicated, with referral to a cardiologist."
Not just trauma should send neck pain sufferers to the doctor, however. Dr. Lyn Weiss, chairman of Nassau University Medical Center's physical medicine and rehabilitation department in East Meadow, recommends that people see a doctor about neck aches if they feel pain radiating down the arm, arm weakness, tingling or numbness in the arm, headaches, severe pain that does not go away, fever, recent trauma, pain in other joints, or pain that prevents a full night's sleep.
3. A RANGE OF TREATMENTS
Massage can be a helpful treatment for mild neck pain, as can heat, Weiss said, but "some people react better to an ice pack, or an ice pack alternating with heat."
She also advised against keeping the neck immobile for long periods of time. "A neck brace may make you feel better temporarily, but it will end up weakening the neck muscles, which can lead to more pain down the road," Weiss said.
In more serious cases, she said, treatment may include over-the-counter painkillers, although she stressed that prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin are not recommended for neck pain. Muscle relaxants and certain types of antidepressants (which can disrupt the body's pain response) are other potential treatments, she said.
"Sometimes, an injection into the muscle can help break up muscle spasm," Weiss said. "Injections may also be given in the spine, depending on the cause of the neck pain."
As for other options, she noted that physical therapy can improve posture, stretch muscles and improve strength. "In certain cases, traction may be helpful," Weiss said. "Rarely, surgery may be indicated."
4. KEEPING THE PAIN AT BAY
Weiss offered several suggestions: "Stretch every day, get a good night's sleep, avoid stress." In addition, she said, "make sure to strengthen your shoulder, stomach and back muscles in order to maintain good core strength." And, when you're doing anything for a long time -- whether you're driving or working at a computer -- take frequent breaks, she said.
For computer users, proper posture plays a role in avoiding neck aches. Weiss said that starts with keeping the computer at an appropriate height "so that you do not need to strain, the computer is at eye level, and you can sit comfortably."
Dr. Nancy Epstein, an attending neurosurgeon at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, noted three good ways to prevent neck pain:
* Avoid heavy lifting
* Don't carry bags over one shoulder
* Don't overdo it at the gym