Causes and Treatment Paths
Most of the time, neck pain is acute and caused by tension. You can find out what other causes there are and what helps against pain here.
What is Neck Pain?
Countless nerves, seven vertebral bodies and loads of muscles converge in the neck – and the cervical spine does hard work every day to keep the heavy head straight. So it’s actually no wonder that many people struggle with neck pain on a regular basis. They arise from tension in the muscles, which in turn are triggered, for example, by poor posture or drafts. In most cases, neck pain is acute and easy to treat, for example through massages or physiotherapy. If the symptoms persist for more than three months, one speaks of chronic neck pain.
Usually our necks can take a lot. That means, if it comes to neck pain, the muscles must have been excessively strained for a long time. Therefore, neck pain rarely comes alone: The pain often radiates, for example to the head, shoulders or up to the arms. In the worst case, numbness in the fingers or symptoms of paralysis can occur. The so-called stiff neck also often occurs – it severely restricts head mobility and allows the head to be turned to the right, left, up or down, usually only with pain.
Acute and chronic neck pain
Acute neck pain is a sign of current overload and tension in the muscles and usually take a few days to a maximum of three weeks. It is mostly due to harmless causes such as bad posture or an unfavorable lying position when sleeping. Even when we are stressed, we are more prone to neck tension, headaches and the like. It is estimated that every third German has acute neck pain at least once a year.
If the symptoms last longer than twelve weeks, the cause is usually due to physical wear and tear, which in turn can lead to other diseases. Chronic neck pain can cause the following additional symptoms:
- Headaches and even migraines
- Breathing disorders – the stiff neck expands to the chest and flattens breathing
- Shoulder infections
- Herniated discs
- Cervical spine syndrome (“cervical syndrome” or “cervical spine syndrome”) – this refers to general complaints in the neck area, e.g. B. Tensions that cause radiating pain or a persistently stiff neck
Causes of Neck Pain
Usually there is no serious illness behind it, However, neck pain can have many possible causes, which can be divided into different areas. Here is an overview:
Neck pain due to signs of wear and tear
- Disc prolapse: The herniated disc in the cervical spine is rare, but possible.
- Osteoporosis: Bone loss, which is particularly common in postmenopausal women, can also manifest itself in neck pain.
- Rickets: Here, a vitamin D deficiency leads to the fact that bone growth is disturbed and the muscles in the whole body are weakened.
- Arthrosis: Age-related joint wear and tear can also affect the joints of the cervical spine.
- Chondrosis: Age-related wear and tear on the intervertebral discs leads to neck pain, among other things.
- Spondylosis: This is a stiffening of the spine that is triggered by changes in the intervertebral discs.
- Cervicocephalic Syndrome: Changes or age-related signs of wear and tear lead to headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness and / or visual disturbances in addition to neck pain. Neck mobility decreases, neck pain sets in.
- Cervical spinal canal sterosis: The vertebral canal of the cervical spine, in which the spinal cord runs, narrows. In addition to neck pain, numbness and paralysis can occur.
Neck pain from muscle tension
- Cold flu
- Bad posture and / or stress
- Psychological factors, e.g. B. Stress or anxiety
- Pulled muscles in the neck area
- Torticollis (muscles are overly active and tense quickly, causing the head to be tilted)
Neck pain from injury
- Vertebral fractures (attention: if a vertebral fracture is suspected, extreme caution should be exercised with first aid, as paraplegia is possible)
Other conditions that cause neck pain
- Tumors / metastases
- Disc inflammation
- Fibromyalgia (chronic pain disorder which, in addition to pain throughout the body, can cause constant fatigue and sleep disorders)
- Inflammation of the meninges (“meningitis”, bacteria-related inflammation which, in addition to headache, fever, confusion and nausea, leads to neck stiffness
- Scoliosis (“crooked back”, oblique position of the spine)
- Rheumatic diseases, e.g. B. rheumatism or degenerative osteoarthritis
- Abscesses in the throat (they can also lead to shortness of breath or even suffocation, quick medical help is required here)
aside from that pain caused by diseases in the internal organs such as the heart or liver can radiate into the neck.
Neck pain? These symptoms require medical attention!
Neck pain often occurs with other symptoms – which are not always harmless. Although they are rarely associated with serious illnesses, if the following symptoms occur in addition to the discomfort in the neck, rapid medical help is important:
- Headache together with nausea and / or vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light, paralysis, stiff neck, pain when the chin is moved down towards the chest. Meningitis may be present here – the emergency doctor should be called immediately!
- Fever, chills, unexplained weight loss
- Pain is just as severe when you are at rest as when you are in motion
- Feeling numb and / or limbs falling asleep all the time
- Signs of paralysis
Patients with neck pain after an accident should also be careful or those who have already had problems with their back or neck, for example a herniated disc.
Diagnosis at the doctor
On the basis of discussions about the existing complaints and a physical examination, the family doctor can often make an initial diagnosis of acute neck pain. Above all, the mobility of the neck and head is checked, but also whether there is pain when touched or pressed. Depending on the suspected cause, imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be used. If symptoms of numbness or paralysis indicate possible nerve damage, a neurological examination for neck pain is also necessary.
Treating Neck Pain: Which Therapy Will Help?
There are various options for therapy for acute neck pain, which should help to loosen tense muscles so that the pain disappears and the mobility of the neck and head is improved again. The following treatments are useful:
- Physical therapy: On the one hand, you can learn exercises that help to build up the neck muscles, on the other hand, the painful muscle areas are loosened and relaxed with massages.
- Acupuncture: With the help of acupuncture needles in the right parts of the body, the body’s energy flow is supposed to be improved, which reduces pain.
- Injections: Anesthetics are injected around irritated nerve roots, so that the pain stimulus no longer reaches the brain. If the pain subsides, the muscles become more relaxed again.
- Manual medicine: Tension and muscle blocks can also be treated with the help of chiropractic or osteopathy.
- Heat treatment: Heat relaxes hardened muscles and can relieve pain. A cherry stone pillow or a hot water bottle is often enough, but heat patches are also an alternative. In general, the neck should be kept warm, for example by wearing a scarf.
- Relaxation Techniques: With the help of relaxation techniques, e.g. B. Autogenic training or progressive muscle relaxation, neck pain can also be treated and prevented.
- Medication: Prescription-free drugs with active ingredients such as ibuprofen or diclofenac can be taken at short notice in consultation with the doctor.
One Surgery for neck pain is only very rare and necessary for serious causes of the complaints.
How can I prevent neck pain?
In order to avoid neck pain in the first place, you should pay attention to a few things in everyday life. The following tips will help prevent complaints:
- Neck and back friendly workplace: The desk chair should be ergonomically adapted so that you can sit upright on it. At best, your feet are hip-width apart on the floor, your arms are at right angles on the table top and horizontal to the keyboard. If you make a lot of phone calls, it is better to use a headset instead of always wedging the receiver between your ear and shoulder. It is also important to get up at least once an hour and walk around and change your sitting position regularly.
- Avoid drafts: Cold drafts often cause acute complaints. Here, too, a scarf can help.
- Strength training: Strong back and neck muscles can also prevent neck pain. The muscles are strengthened through targeted strength training in these areas.
- Pillow and mattress: A back-friendly one mattress is just as important as a suitable neck pillow.
Exercises and stretches for neck pain
The neck muscles can be relaxed with various loosening exercises and small stretches, which can prevent neck pain. The following exercises are useful:
- Loosen shoulders: Raise your shoulders as you inhale and drop them again as you exhale deeply. Repeat this five times. In addition, you can circle your shoulders and shake out your arms.
- Stretch your round back: Place your palms against your forehead and bend your head down to your chest against the slight resistance of your hands. Then cross your hands behind your head and slowly straighten up again – that pulls into your spine.
- Stretch the neck: Slowly lay your head on one side, at the same time pull the shoulder of the other side down and let the arm that goes with it hang down. This will stretch the side neck muscles. Repeat on the other side.
The general rule: Everyone should take a few minutes each day to practice neck pain relief.
Reading tips: You can find out more about neck tension here. Have you read enough about neck pain? Here we explain the causes of back pain, everything about the hunched back and how a herniated disc develops.
If you want to exchange ideas about health topics, take a look at ours BRIGITTE Community!
German Society for General Medicine and Family Medicine (DEGAM). Neck pain. AWMF register no .: 053-007. 06/30/2016. (DEGAM guidelines; Volume 13).
German Society for Neurology (DGN). Cervical Radiculopathy (S2k guideline). AWMF registration number: 030-082. 11/06/2017.
Hartmann, B. et al .: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders, ecomed medicine, 1st edition, 2013