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Common Causes of Neck Pain


21st March, 2012

Neck pain pictureNeck pain is very common, it is one of the most common complaints we see as musculoskeletal clinicians . About 2 in 3 people develop an episode of neck pain at some point in their life. One survey conducted in the UK found that, of adults aged 45-75 years, about 1 in 4 women and about 1 in 5 men had recurrent neck pain. There are many different types and causes of neck pain which include trauma, poor posture, degenerative diseases, abnormalities in the bone or joints and tumours.

Here is a brief explanation of just a few of the causes;

Non-specific neck pain is the most common type and is sometimes called 'mechanical' neck pain. Often the exact cause or origin of the pain is not known. It may involve minor strains and sprains to muscles or ligaments in the neck and bad posture is also a contributing factor in many cases. Neck pain is more common in people who spend much of their working day at a desk or computer, with a 'bent-forward' or 'hunched' posture.

A 'whiplash' jolt to the neck, most commonly due to a car crash, can also cause neck pain. A whiplash neck sprain occurs when your head is suddenly jolted backwards and forwards (or forwards then backwards) in a whip-like movement, or is suddenly forcibly rotated. This can cause some neck muscles and ligaments to stretch more than normal (sprain). Don't miss next weeks' blog, for more on whiplash

Cervical spondylosis is an age-related degeneration ('wear and tear') of the vertebrae and discs in the neck. To an extent, we all develop some degree of degeneration in the vertebrae and discs as we become older. It tends to start sometime after the age of about 30. One feature of the degeneration is that the edges of the vertebrae often develop small, rough areas of bone called osteophytes. Over many years, the discs of the neck become thinner. This degeneration is a normal ageing process which can be likened to having 'wrinkles in the spine'. In many people, the degeneration does not cause any symptoms, however in some people the nearby muscles, ligaments, or nerves may become irritated or 'pressed on' by the degenerative changes. For those unfortunate few people the symptoms normally felt can be neck pain and stiffness, however it can lead to pain radiating into the arms, pins and needles and numbness in the hands.

Acute (sudden onset) torticollis. This is sometimes termed 'wry neck'. A torticollis is when the head becomes twisted to one side and it is very painful to move the head back straight. The cause of acute primary torticollis is often not known. However, it may be due to a minor strain or sprain to a muscle or ligament in the neck. Some cases may be due to certain muscles of the neck being exposed to cold ('sleeping in a draught') and others may be activity or posture induced. It is not uncommon for people to go to bed feeling fine and to wake up the next morning with an acute torticollis. Treatment from a manual therapist can help with this problem. Manual therapy aims to reduce the muscle spasm, restore range of motion and relieve the pain.

Cervical radiculopathy is when the root of a nerve is pressed on or damaged as it comes out from the spinal cord in the neck (cervical) region. As well as neck pain, there are symptoms such as loss of feeling (numbness), pins and needles, pain and weakness in parts of an arm supplied by the nerve. These other symptoms may actually be the main symptoms rather than neck pain. The common causes of a radiculopathy are cervical spondylosis and a prolapsed disc. Various less common disorders can also cause cervical radiculopathy.

More serious and rarer causes of neck pain include: rheumatoid arthritis, bone disorders, infections, cancers, and serious injuries that damage the vertebrae, spinal cord or nerves in the neck.

The many causes of neck pain should be examined by a specialist such as Chiropractor, Osteopath, Physiotherapist or Musculoskeletal Doctor. Your specialist will then provide you with a tailor made treatment plan for your problem and if necessary  refer you for further investigations or scans.

If you are concerned about any of the above, book an appointment with one of our clinicians for a consultation.

Contributing Author:
Shelley Doole DC MChiro


Neck pain - non specific, Clinical Knowledge Summaries (January 2009)

Binder AI; Cervical spondylosis and neck pain. BMJ. 2007 Mar 10;334(7592):527-31.

Vos C, Verhagen A, Passchier J, et al; Management of acute neck pain in general practice: a prospective study. Br J Gen Pract. 2007 Jan;57(534):23-8.