Neck anatomy is a well-engineered structure of bones, nerves, muscles, ligaments and tendons. The cervical spine (neck) is delicate—housing the spinal cord that sends messages from the brain to control all aspects of the body—while also remarkably strong and flexible, allowing movement in all directions.
The neck begins at the base of the skull and through a series of seven vertebral segments connects to the thoracic spine (the upper back). With its complex and intricate construct, and the many stresses and forces that can be placed on it through a trauma or even just daily activities, the cervical spine is at risk for developing a number of painful conditions.
Common Causes of Neck Pain
- Sleeping in an awkward position that overextends the neck
- Moving the neck suddenly in an unusual way
- Poor posture
- Repetitive motions such as turning the head side to side
- Holding the head in an unusual way for long periods of time
- Whiplash injury
Common Causes of Spine/Lower Back Pain
- Lumbar disc herniation
- Lumbar degenerative disc disease
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
- Isthmic spondylolisthesis
- Spinal stenosis
When to Seek Medical Attention for Neck Pain
Seek immediate medical help if you have a fever and headache, and your neck is so stiff that you cannot touch your chin to your chest. This may be meningitis. Call your local emergency number (such as 911) or get to a hospital.
- Symptoms do not go away in 1 week with self care
- You have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand
- Your neck pain was caused by a fall, blow, or injury — if you cannot move your arm or hand, have someone call 911
- You have swollen glands or a lump in your neck
- Your pain does not go away with regular doses of over-the-counter pain medication
- You have difficulty swallowing or breathing along with the neck pain
When to Seek Care for Spine/Lower Back Pain
If lower back pain does not start to subside within one to two weeks, or if there are troubling symptoms, medical care should be sought. A health professional will first identify a general source of pain and then determine appropriate and effective methods of pain management.
Certain symptoms may indicate a medical emergency. While these conditions are rare, it is important to seek immediate medical attention should the any of the following symptoms accompany back pain:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Unexplained fever
- Bowel or bladder incontinence
- Loss of/altered sensation in the groin and/or legs
- Use relaxation techniques and regular exercise to prevent unwanted stress and tension to the neck muscles.
- Learn stretching exercises for your neck and upper body. Stretch every day, especially before and after exercise. A physical therapist can help.
- If you tend to get neck pain from exercise, apply ice to your neck after physical activity.
- Use good posture. Keep your back supported. Adjust your computer monitor to eye level. This prevents you from continually looking up or down.
- If you work at a computer, stretch your neck every hour or so.
- Use a headset when on the telephone, especially if answering or using the phone is a main part of your job.
- When reading or typing from documents at your desk, place them in a holder at eye level.
- Evaluate your sleeping conditions. Make sure your pillow is properly and comfortably supporting your head and neck.
- Make sure your mattress is firm enough.