Your neck, which helps you look up, down, and side-to-side, needs to be very flexible to allow you to see from a wide range of angles. Your bones and soft tissues make this enhanced mobility possible. The cervical spine, which refers to the bones of the neck, are very responsive, but they can also be more vulnerable to damage, disorders, and other concerns that can cause pain and limit movement. In most cases, neck pain is a temporary issue that will subside over time. However, more serious issues require evaluation and treatment to alleviate the symptoms. Our board certified orthopaedic surgeons are extensively trained, and they can provide customized spine and pain management to help you relieve discomfort and return to normal activity as quickly as possible.
For more information about neck pain and how to treat it, please contact our office today. We can answer your questions and help you schedule a consultation.
What causes neck pain?
Neck pain can develop as a result of a wide range of conditions that affect the bones, muscles, ligaments, nerves, or joints of the neck. Discomfort typically stems from the soft tissues, either due to an anatomical abnormality, injury, or long-term wear and tear. Though uncommon, tumors or infection can occur, reducing mobility and causing pain. Neck concerns can also lead to issues in other areas of the body, including the shoulders, back, and arms.
Degenerative and Inflammatory Diseases
There are a number of degenerative diseases of the neck that can cause you pain or discomfort. Some of the most common include osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Over time, regular wear and tear of the joints can lead to osteoarthritis, which typically develops in mature and elderly adults. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes the lining of your joints to swell, gradually leading to bone destruction and joint deformity. With both of these conditions you may experience stiffness, pain, and reduced function.
Another cause of neck pain can be cervical disc degeneration. In between each vertebra is a squishy, shock-absorbing disc that protects the bones. Inside the disc is a jelly-like substance called the nucleus. If this soft center begins to degenerate, there is less space between the two corresponding vertebrae, which may then begin to rub painfully. Furthermore, if the disc ruptures, the contents could protrude and place pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves, causing discomfort and reduced mobility. A ruptured disc in the neck is known as a herniated cervical disc. Cervical disc degeneration commonly occurs in women over the age of 40, but it can happen to anyone.
The neck’s primary purpose is to support the head and provide a flexible foundation so it can move. As a result, the neck is susceptible to injury from car accidents, recreational activities, falls, and other incidents that can cause damage. Our skilled orthopaedists recommend wearing a seatbelt whenever in a motor vehicle to prevent whiplash and other injuries. A collision from behind can cause the neck to hyperextend—move backward beyond the normal boundaries—or hyperflex—move forward beyond the normal boundaries. Other issues that could occur include fracture, dislocation, or paralysis.
In addition to physical injuries and disease, neck pain may occur as a result of a tumor, infection, or congenital abnormality. However, these concerns are less common.
When should you seek medical care?
If you experience an injury that results in severe neck pain, such as a car or diving accident or fall, you should seek out a paramedic or board certified orthopaedic surgeon promptly. After a serious trauma, it’s imperative to immobilize the neck to reduce the potential risk of paralysis or additional damage. If you feel pain radiating down your arms or legs, request immediate medical attention. Even if pain is minimal or nonexistent, numbness, weakness, or another sensation that radiates through the arms and/or legs following an injury should be examined.
If you have neck pain without experiencing an injury, you may still wish to see an orthopaedic surgeon if the discomfort is:
- Persistent and continuous
- Accompanied by radiating pain through the arms or the legs
- Accompanied by weakness, tingling, numbness, or headaches
Who can treat neck pain?
Orthopaedic surgeons receive extensive training specifically in the musculoskeletal system, including the bones and soft tissues of the neck. Our skilled surgeons can diagnose, treat, and help prevent common and complex concerns of the entire spine. At Orthopaedic Institute of Central Jersey, our entire medical team can address neck pain, and we have a selection of physicians who focus on issues concerning spine and pain management.
Diagnosing Neck Pain
When you arrive for you initial consultation, one of our experienced orthopaedic surgeons will evaluate your areas of concern, discuss your symptoms, and develop a customized and comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your unique needs. This evaluation is a necessary part of diagnosing your condition and providing the best possible care.
During this meeting, your surgeon will take a complete medical history. We encourage you to feel comfortable and be honest about any medications you’re taking and surgeries or treatments you’ve completed. We will also ask you about any past neck injuries, illnesses, pain, or other complaints.
Your doctor will then perform a physical examination of your neck, arms, and legs. He or she may explore your neck motion, check for tenderness, and review the function of your nerves, muscles, and ligaments in your neck and extremities.
Your surgeon may then request some tests to help diagnose your condition. We will order the minimum number of tests necessary to properly evaluate your concern. X-rays are commonly requested to view how your cervical bones look and function. In most cases the physical evaluation, consultation, and X-rays will be sufficient to develop an optimal treatment plan. In some instances, however, we may require additional tests to enhance the diagnosis. These may include:
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Examines the soft tissues of the neck, including the spinal cord and nerve roots.
- CT (Computerized Tomography): An alternative form of X-ray that shows a more precise view of the bones and spinal canal
- Myelogram: Another type of X-ray that includes the injection of a dye or “contrast material” into the spinal canal to enhance visibility of the spinal canal and the nerve roots.
- EMG (Electromyogram): An evaluation of nerve and muscle function.
Depending on your unique needs, your orthopaedic surgeon may also request blood tests or consult with other medical professionals to arrive at the most precise diagnosis possible.
Neck Pain Treatment
Most incidences of neck pain can be successfully treated with one or more non-surgical techniques, including rest, prescription medication, physical therapy, exercise, and behavior modifications. Your treatment plan will depend on your diagnosis, and our orthopaedic surgeons will review their findings and recommendations with you during your consultation.
Discomfort caused by stretching neck muscles and ligaments beyond the normal range can lead to inflammation, which can be treated with rest and by wearing a neck collar for a pre-determined period of time. Medication to reduce inflammation may also be prescribed. If you’re experiencing pain severe enough to require prescription medication, it’s important to use it as advised and to discontinue use as directed. You should also carefully follow any instructions provided by your surgeon.
Rehabilitation programs can also be highly effective for persistent or chronic neck pain. This treatment plan may include specific exercises and physical therapy movements that are designed to reduce pain and prevent recurrences.
Surgical intervention is rarely necessary for neck pain. In most cases, a combination of minimally invasive treatments can alleviate the discomfort. However if non-surgical methods prove ineffective, or if the condition is severe enough to warrant an operation, surgery may be recommended. Some instances where this may occur include: when a herniated disc pinches a nerve or the spinal cord; if a bony abnormality narrows the spinal canal opening; or if you suffered a serious injury that could cause paralysis. In cases of trauma, surgery can help to stabilize the neck to prevent additional damage.
At Orthopaedic Institute of Central Jersey, our extensively trained orthopaedic surgeons are skilled in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of common and complex neck conditions. For more information about neck pain and treatment, or if you would like to schedule a consultation with one of our surgeons, please contact us today.