Neck Pain Testing and Diagnosis

While some neck pain is caused by simple strains and resolves on its own, persistent or recurring neck pain can be a symptom of an underlying condition. To determine the exact origins of your pain, your South Denver Neurosurgery physician will get your medical history, and ask you about the location, frequency, and duration of your pain. He may also check for muscle weakness and numbness, and have you move your head in order to evaluate your range of motion and pain during movement.

Your physician may also talk to you about your:

  • Occupation. If your job involves manual labor, or sitting in front of a computer for hours, that can impact your cervical spine.
  • Lifestyle. What hobbies or activities are important to you? Are you active, or do you spend leisure hours watching TV or playing video games?
  • Posture. Slouching or tilting your head forward can put strain on your cervical spine.
  • Sleep. Do you sleep on your side, stomach, or back? What type of mattress and pillows do you sleep on? Is your neck pain and stiffness worse upon waking?
  • Injuries. Have you had a recent injury, such as a vehicle accident or fall, that might have caused neck pain?

In addition, your doctor may recommend imaging and other diagnostic tests to help identify the precise origin of the pain. The findings of these diagnostic tests can help determine the best treatment option for you. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may choose from several tests, including:

  • X-ray. An X-ray (radiograph) provides a picture of the bones in your neck. It can be used to identify degenerative disease, fractures, or even tumors.
  • CT scan. CT scans combine computer-guided X-rays taken from many different directions and views to produce detailed, cross-sectional images of the internal neck. These images give the most accurate information subtle changes in bones.
  • MRI. An MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to create detailed images. Unlike X-ray, MRI can show tissue as well as bone. MRI detects variations in anatomical structures, and produces a series of detailed cross-sections of the soft tissues and bones which can reveal a bulging, protruding, or herniated disc, or pinching of the nerves or spinal cord.
  • Myelogram. In this test, a special dye is injected into the area around the spinal column, to allow better viewing of the spinal canal and discs, and the condition of nerves in and around the spine. When checking for the cause of neck pain, a CT scan is often combined with a myelogram to get a view of what’s going on with the bones, discs, and nerves. This is used most often when MRI is not possible, such as in patients with electronic devices implanted, such as cardiac pacemakers.
  • Electrodiagnostic testing. Your physician may perform a study of your nerve conduction, which tests the electrical activity of nerves in the arms and legs. This test often is followed by an electromyogram, which tests electrical activity in the muscles. Both tests measure the speed of the electrical signals being sent along nerves, which can help your physician pinpoint the location of any nerve problems.
  • Bone scan. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into your bloodstream, and travels through your body, where it is absorbed by your bones. More radioactive material will be absorbed by an area where there is abnormal activity, such as inflammation. A scan then detects areas of greater radiation, which can help your doctor identify the source of pain.