Possible Causes of Neck Pain

By Sally Ann Quirke, Chartered Physiotherapist | Filed under: Neck Pain


The different types of Neck Pain

Causes of Neck Pain
Finding the cause of Neck Pain

Your neck is a complex structure made up of a lot of components, including 7 bony vertebrae, and surrounding them are muscles, ligaments, fascia, nerves and discs (see the neck anatomy article for a further explanation).

Cervical neck pain can arise from any of the structural components of your neck. Most commonly cervical neck pain arises from an injury or dysfunction to your neck muscles, ligaments, nerves or discs.

I divide Cervical neck pain into five categories:

  • Disc pain: Is usually a sharp pain over the affected disc in your neck . It can be central, right or left sided depending on what aspect of the disc is injured or prolapsing. It can be associated with arm pain or pins and needles and numbness if it is compressing a nerve in your neck. Depending on the degree of disc damage, it can be a mild or a severe problem. These cases require prompt medical and physiotherapy attention.

  • Muscle pain: Is usually a deep ache in your neck muscles associated with movement in a specific direction. It can involve sharp pain if a neck muscle has gone into spasm. It is eased by rest and aggravated by movement. This pain responds well to physiotherapy and heat treatments. It may self-resolve without treatment within 48-72 hours. Seek medical attention if it exceeds this time frame.

  • Ligament pain: Is often associated with whiplash or sports injuries, where the ligaments of your neck are damaged in the whiplash motion (as commonly seen with road traffic accidents). The pain is usually worse after rest and eases with movement. It responds well to physiotherapy treatment and should not be ignored.

  • Nerve pain: Is a deep sharp achy pain associated with a nerve being pinched in your neck. The severity of the pain will depend on the degree and cause of the compression. Nerve pain in the neck requires immediate attention from a suitably qualified physiotherapist or doctor.

  • A combination of all the above: Most of the neck pain patients I see present with two or more of the above types. All the structures of the neck are closely connected physically, so when one structure is injured, often another structures can also be affected.

Identifying the main cause of your pain is the priority and requires a thorough physiotherapy assessment. Manual treatment and exercises are then typically required to resolve the problem.

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So, what is causing my neck pain?

Now that we have identified the main categories of neck pain - let us look at some of the incidents and conditions that can cause neck pain.

What you may find surprising, however, is that pretty much with every neck pain injury I have treated over the years, the client always has a poor upper back or neck posture. Posture is ultimately the main underlying cause of neck pain and related injuries that I see, and it is one of the first things I discuss with them upon presentation.

Posture is the way you hold yourself. How you sit and move and your posture develops over time. for example, if you have a poor neck and back posture and have a seated job, then you will be susceptible to neck pain and back pain. However, if you are the lucky one born with a naturally good posture or actively maintain good posture, you reduce the risk of developing a neck pain.

So, widening things a little - some of the main causes of neck pain that I see are:

- Poor posture - as mentioned already but read my articles on posture here if you would like to learn more.

  • Whiplash injury - usually associated with road traffic accident or sports injuries.

  • Osteoarthritis - A medical condition the discs of the cervical spine gradually break down with age, lose fluid, and become stiffer. Read this article on Arthritis in the neck to learn more.

  • Scoliosis - Less common than the others, Scoliosis is a medical condition where there spine is misaligned.

  • Poor Biomechanics. - Poor movement patterns that lead to neck strain and injury (think head bangers at rock concert being an extreme example!)

Treating Neck Pain

Although the above are the main causes of neck pain, the treatment of neck pain is the generally the same for each.

The first thing is to find the correct medical practitioner (e.g. Doctor or Chartered Physiotherapist) for you, who can diagnose the cause of your neck pain accurately. A proper diagnosis is followed by the appropriate manual therapy to correct any movement or alignment dysfunctions that are found.

read more about how to treat neck pain here.

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While the content and materials contained in the articles on this website have been written & researched by Sally Ann Quirke, a professional, practising & fully qualified Chartered Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist) based in Ireland, they are provided for general information and educational purposes only. They do not constitute medical advice on any particular individual situation. Please see your Chartered Physiotherapist or other medical practitioner for full and individual consultation.

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