Degenerative joint disease, disc degeneration, osteoarthritis, foraminal encroachment, canal stenosis – medical jargon can almost certainly give anyone a headache, let alone a pain in the neck. Although such conditions often are quite serious, many individuals go through life ignoring neck pain. Left untreated, seemingly innocuous neck pain can elevate into one of the more serious conditions above.
Many people incorrectly believe that neck pain is a normal part of aging. A better understanding of why neck pain occurs and how to manage it can allow one to age gracefully.
Neck pain can range from tightness in the neck muscles or a dull ache to more severe symptoms such as burning and sharp pain. Most neck discomfort results from either some form of trauma or injury and/or a combination of chronic poor postural habits and stress.
Even something as simple as accidentally bumping one’s head can cause biomechanical problems in the neck. The body’s natural way of signaling duress is via pain, muscle spasms and/or stiffness in the neck, often accompanied by a decrease in range of motion. Like casting a fractured arm, the body naturally “splints” itself through muscle spasms to protect injured areas.
Signs and symptoms of neck pain often diminish and seemingly disappear but sometimes return and become chronic. Degenerative changes in the spine and surrounding soft tissues occur over time if the neck is under duress and can lead to the more serious degenerative diseases.
Poor posture or forward head posture creates similar symptoms – spasms, aches, sharp pains and even neurological changes such as weakness or pain in the arm when a nerve is pinched.
The good news is that prevention is possible. Creating positive postural habits can decrease the risk of degenerative and detrimental changes to the spine.
Stooped or chronic poor posture creates compressive loads to the upper thoracic spine. On average, for every inch of forward head posture, the load to the upper thoracic spine increases by 10 pounds. As a result, chronic forward head posture changes the biomechanics of the spine and commonly results in the development of a hump on the upper thoracic spine, better known as a Dowager’s hump.
As poor posture continues, the body’s neck and upper back muscles, ligaments and tendons become stressed and weak from the load of holding the head in a forward, stressed position. Headaches are a very common result. Over time, the body lays down bone that can interfere with normal range of motion and nerve function, and hence osteoarthritis and other degenerative diseases.
Good neck postural habits aren’t just something we need during the day but also include proper positioning during sleep. Waking up with a kinked neck is typically a mechanical issue and considered a micro-injury. Maintain ample support as you sleep with a properly fitted pillow, especially for those with forward-stooped-fused posture and unable to rest their head on a flat surface.
Stress is another common cause of neck pain. Stress often leads to muscle spasms in the shoulders and neck that can result in headaches, particularly for those who already have poor ergonomics and posture. Spasms in the upper neck are usually due to constant contraction of the suboccipital muscles and can precipitate pain commonly to the base of the skull and pain in and around the eyebrow areas.
Simply improving one’s posture can decrease the incidence of neck pain. Simply put, our moms and dads were correct when they admonished us to “Sit up straight!” Neutral posture promotes optimal functioning of not only the spine, but also the overall body. Improved posture decreases the load to joints, decreases muscle tension and promotes healthier tissues.
If you are experiencing severe neck pain, consult your physician for an evaluation before beginning an exercise regime. Taking a proactive approach in maintaining flexibility and great posture can decrease your risk of neck pain, degenerative changes and a stooped posture as you age.
Complementary alternative medicine such as chiropractic is a safe and effective way to prevent and treat neck discomfort. Various types of treatment and care are geared to help with aging and for those with more severe cases of osteoarthritis and other degenerative diseases. Deep-tissue massage and acupuncture are other forms of alternative medicine that can treat neck pain effectively.
Charmaine L. Tu is a chiropractic physician practicing in Los Altos. For more information, call 787-5570.