A stiff, sore or painful neck can be scary. It can cause headaches, shoulder pain and make life miserable.
It's only when you can't turn your neck properly that you realise how much you move your head and neck. Neck pain can be caused by a variety of issues; to understand what might be causing your neck pain, you'll need an understanding of how your neck works.
What is the neck?
Your neck is made up of the seven vertebrae at the top of your spinal column, as well as the various nerves, blood vessels ligaments, tendons and muscles that surround them, connecting your neck upwards to your head, and downwards to the rest of your back, shoulders and chest
Unlike most other bones in the body, the vertebrae have quite a complex structure; they have a circular ‘hole’ in the, known as the vertebral foramen, when the spinal cord passes through. The vertebrae in the neck have two other holes to allow the arteries and veins that pass blood to and from the head to travel through.
Between each vertebrae, and acting as both connectors and “shock absorbers” are intervertebral discs. The discs create space that allow a number of major nerves to branch out from the spinal cord to other areas of the body. The vertebrae are also connected to each other by “facet joints” – that’s the knobbly bit you can feel sometimes.
A number of muscles also connect into the neck, and it’s these muscles, along with the design of the vertebrate, discs and facet joints, that allows your neck to move both left and right (technically known as rotation) and up and down (known as flexion).
Medically, this area is referred to as your cervical spine or c-spine, the seven vertebrae in it are referred to as C1 all the way through to C7 (C1 is sometime called the atlas and C2 is sometimes called the axis); all in all, it’s a pretty complex area.
Neck pain is very common.
Most people will suffer with neck pain at some point in their lives, and this can be as a result of a physical injury (such as whiplash), a prolonged strain (such as sleeping badly) or as a combination of a strain and emotional or mental health issue (such as neck pain from constantly having your shoulders hunched). Because the ligaments, tendons and muscles in the neck connect to the shoulder, back, chest and jaw, it’s possible that issues in the neck can cause pain elsewhere. This is also true with nerve pain. The nerves that come out of the spaces between the vertebrae in the neck can becomes trapped at the neck, but the pain can be felt anywhere along the nerve’s path, so tingling fingers can sometimes be caused by an issue in the neck.
The muscles at the back of the neck attach to different vertebrae between the male body and the female body, meaning that men and women will often feel neck pain quite differently.
This is perhaps the second most common type of neck pain, and it’s the one most people experience when they wake up in the morning and find that their neck is really stiff and sore, and they can’t move it in any range. Here, the neck muscles have gone into spasm, and whilst the spasm might release over time, the ache is likely to remain for some hours (or even days) afterwards. Neck muscle spasms can be caused by sleeping in an uncomfortable position, but (like over-exertion pain), it can also be caused by stress that cause the shoulders to become and neck muscles to tighten in response to an emotional stimulus.
Keeping the area warm and trying to relax can help with this issue. Painkillers can also help, although this will depend on your own personal health circumstances. If it is possible to touch the area, then massage and RAPID NFR can help, as can kinseology taping. If this is an issue that occurs regularly, and can be linked to an emotional stimulus, it may be worth investigating how to deal with the issue that is causing the spasming to occur.
Facet joint neck pain
The facet joints are the joints between the vertebrae that allow the neck to rotate and flex. This is often described as feeling like a deep pain, that will either feel like a deep ache or a sharp pain (although still deep in the neck). Generally this will feel worse upon trying to do a particular movement (so leaning the head left might be fine but leaning the head right isn’t). This type of pain can feel like it’s radiating into the shoulders or into the upper back, and is common in people who have arthritis in the cervical spine after a period of inactivity.
Trying to keep the neck warm and moving here is often helpful, as is heat and anti-inflammatories or arthritis medication if this ha been prescribed.
Neck pain due to headaches
Although people don’t often think about the fact there are muscles and nerves in their head and scalp, there are! It’s muscles and nerves that allow you to raise your eyebrows (or furrow them when people are being frustrating!), wiggle your ears or wrinkle your forehead, along with the occipital muscles that control movement of the eyes. All of these muscles can become tense, spasm or suffer strain (for instance, if you are squinting a lot) and that can lead to a headache that radiates into the neck. Neck pain from headaches will feel like a dull, aching pain, and will often increase if the neck or head is moved, even to the point of nausea.
Many people will resort to painkillers of one variety or other for headaches, and this will often relieve the pain the in neck too. If this is a common pain, it is often worth having an eyesight test, or learning techniques to deal with stress and anxiety. There are particular self-massage techniques focusing on the scalp that can help with shortening both the length of time and intensity of this type of headache, although they can be uncomfortable at the time of massage.
Neck pain due to nerve issues
Many nerves branch off the spinal cord and flow to other parts of the body from the cervical spine, including nerves that run down arms and fingers. These nerves can sometime become irritated or trapped due to muscle tenseness or spasms. This can result in either a sharp or severe but fleeting pain, or tingling, like pins and needles, that just doesn’t seem to go away. This tingling can be felt at any point along the nerve, so tingling fingers can be due to a trapped nerve in the neck or shoulders.
Although medication to control nerve pain can often be prescribed for this issue, it is also worth investigating manual therapy with a therapist who can work with nerve pain. At State 11, we have had frequent success helping people with trapped nerves that have caused issues across both the head, arms and hands.
Referred pain in the neck
Pain in the neck doesn’t always mean that there is an issue with the neck itself. Similar to how a headache can cause neck pain, or tense shoulders can cause neck pain, issues in other parts of the body can cause neck pain. An example of this would be finding that your neck hurts upon eating. This would be likely to indicate a problem with the oesophagus.
If you notice that your neck pain occurs as a result of doing something else (such as eating, or during exercise) then you should seek advice from your doctor, taking with you a list of activities that cause the pain to occur.
Bone pain in the neck
Pain in the actual vertebrae is uncommon but will require assessment by a doctor as it can be a sign of a more serious issue.
Neck pain due to ageing
The medical pain for neck pain due to ageing is cervical spondylosis. It’s a normal part of ageing, since as we get older, the discs can become dehydrated or herniated, and the ligaments in the neck can also stiffen with age, meaning they’re not as flexible. Certain types of jobs (such as work that involve awkward postures or craning the neck up or down a lot) can heighten the risk of cervical spondylosis, and there are some suggestions of links to smoking and genetic factors.
Interestingly, studies where people with no self-reported neck pain have been given MRI scans have shown that – despite their lack of pain – there are signs of cervical spondylosis, suggesting that this problem does not always result in pain.
When cervical spondylosis does cause pain, doctors will often prescribe painkillers, although exercise and massage or manual therapy (such as offered here at State 11) can help a great deal.
What do clients think of treatment at State 11?
Who better to tell you if somewhere is good at helping with pain, injury or restricted movement than someone who has already been there? Wondering if we can help you? Why not have a listen to what Cath has to say?
Getting treatment at State 11 Soft Tissue Therapy, Spalding
At State 11 in Spalding, we use a variety of advanced techniques to help people in pain or discomfort.
We are injury and pain specialists, and do not offer relaxation or "spa" style massages.
The techniques we use for reducing your pain include RAPID NeuroFascial Reset - an advanced Canadian technique devised by two Canadian therapists frustrated at not being able to make rapid, lasting change for their clients. This is a clothed technique that does not require removal of clothing, or the use of any waxes or oils. We are the only clinic offering RAPID in Lincolnshire.
We may also use sports massage techniques, kinesiology taping, fascial cupping or Instrument Assisted Massage.
If your discomfort is a pain in the neck, we can help.