Chronic neck pain has many causes

The neck  — which is also known as the cervical spine — is a remarkable and complex apparatus. It is capable of supporting a human head and skull that can weigh 12 pounds or more, and at the same time, allows the head to move in multiple directions.

The cervical spine, which protects the spinal cord, is comprised of seven vertebrae, which begin at the base of the skull and extend down to the upper back. The vertebrae of the cervical spine are smaller than those in other areas of the spine. The smallest is nearest the skull, and the size of each vertebrae increases slightly as you move down the cervical spine. The vertebrae contain cylindrical bones that lie in front of the spinal cord and stack on top of each other.

Ligaments, tendons, and muscles help to support and stabilize the cervical spine. Ligaments protect the cervical spine from excess movement that could cause injury.

The complexity and mobility of the cervical spine make it exceptionally prone to pain caused by injury or wear and tear. In fact, an estimated 15 percent of adults in the U.S. report neck pain in any given year. Most often, neck pain will go away within a few days or weeks. But pain that lasts for months could signal a condition that may require medical treatment.

Common types of neck pain include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Sharp or stabbing pain, generally in one area
  • Soreness in a general area
  • Pain that radiates into shoulders, arms, and hands, or up to the head.

Causes of neck pain are many and varied. Some of the most common are sprains and strains, which typically resolve in a few days or weeks. Causes of sprains and strains include:

  • Auto accidents are responsible for one of the most common cervical spine injuries: whiplash. Whiplash occurs when the head is forced to move backward and/or forward rapidly and forcefully, which can cause muscles to tighten and constrict.
  • Sports injuries, including falls and collisions, can involve pain and numbness that radiate down the arm.
  • Sleeping in the wrong position. Waking in the morning with stiffness and soreness in the neck often is caused by sleeping in a position that overextends the neck or causes muscle inflammation.
  • Poor posture. Leaning over a computer, long commutes, or bending over books, papers, or cellphones all can cause tendon and muscle strain that can lead to chronic or intermittent neck pain.

Chronic neck pain, which is considered pain that persists for three months or more, tends to result from structural deterioration.

Common types of deterioration include:

  • Osteoarthritis. Progressive deterioration of cartilage, which causes chronic pain that worsens over time often results from osteoarthritis.
  • Degenerative disc disease. As we age, discs of the cervical spine naturally dehydrate, losing the gel-like substance that helps lubricate the cervical spine and provides cushioning between discs. As dehydration increases, discs may begin to bulge, which causes pain. In addition, bone spurs can develop.
  • Herniated discs. A cervical disc can become herniated, or displaced, when the cushioning gel leaks out through a tear in the disc’s protective outer layer. A herniated disc may press against or pinch a nerve.
  • Cervical radiculopathy. When pain is caused by irritation or compression of the nerves in the cervical spine, it is called cervical radiculopathy.

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