Understanding Neck Pain
The cervical spine, also known as the neck, is made up of seven bones that are stacked on top of each other with a shock-absorbing disc between each level. The neck is actually very flexible, and it is supported by muscles and ligaments. "Sprains" and "strains" in your neck are the result of these tissues being stretched in a way that is too hard or too far, much like a rope that frays when it is stretched beyond its normal capacity.
The medical term, "sprain" refers to a situation where the tough, durable ligaments that hold your bones together have been damaged, while "strain" means that your muscles or tendons that move your neck have been partially torn.
The two most common causes of neck sprains and strains are auto accidents and sports injuries. In other cases, less traumatic activities such as reaching, pushing, pulling, moving heavy objects and falls can also trigger these problems. The majority of people who suffer from neck pain caused by sprains and strains do so as a result of chronic overloading rather than a single occurrence.
Tendons and ligaments for the most part are able to handle these small isolated stressors quite well, but repetitive challenges lead to injury in much the same way that constantly bending a piece of copper wire will cause it to break. Some common types of these less acute types of cervical sprain/strain injuries include bad posture, poor workstations, repetitive movements, prolonged overhead activity, sedentary lifestyles, improper sleep positions, poor bra support and obesity.
Symptoms from a sprain/strain can begin very suddenly but in most cases, they actually will develop gradually. Complaints about neck sprains and strains often include dull neck pain that becomes sharper when you move your head. Rest can help alleviate symptoms, but it can also cause stiffness. The pain is most often felt towards the back of the neck, but it can also radiate to the shoulders or between the shoulder blades.
Tension headaches are also known to commonly accompany neck injuries. If you start to experience more severe symptoms contact your doctor immediately, some of these conditions to be aware of include severe or "different" headaches, loss of consciousness, confusion or "fogginess", difficulty concentrating, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, change in vision, nausea or vomiting, numbness or tingling in your arms or face, weakness or clumsiness in your arms and hands, decreased bowel or bladder control or fever.
The problem with sprain/strain injuries is that they cause your normal healthy elastic tissue to be replaced with less elastic "scar tissue". This process can lead to ongoing pain and even arthritis in some cases. Seeking early and appropriate treatment for your injuries, like the type provided in our office, is critical. You will need to restrict your activity for a while depending on the severity of your injury, particularly if you are feeling pain during certain movements or activities.
If possible you should do your best to avoid heavy lifting and take frequent breaks from prolonged activity, particularly overhead activity. Following acute injuries, you can try to add ice for 10-15 minutes each hour. Heat may be helpful ins some situations of chronic pain. Be sure to ask your doctor for specific ice/heat recommendations. Some patients report partial relief from sports-creams.