Did you know that your head weighs around 18 lbs? Did you know that it is balanced on the top of seven vertebra, all held in line by the constant action of supporting muscles? Imagine the stress on these muscles over the course of a day. It’s bad enough for these muscles to hold the head upright but, when the neck is tilted in any direction, the normal compressive stress on the vertebral column changes to shear stress. Sustained shear stress, such as what occurs when we lean over a desk to work, produces damage to the muscles and the discs between the vertebra. The result is pain and muscle spasm.
Obviously, there are many other reasons to have neck pain. Arthritis, injury(e.g. whiplash) and degenerative or herniated cervical discs are also common causes of neck discomfort. The purpose of this review is to discuss muscle pain, in particular the causes, treatments and tips to prevent reoccurrence.
Neck pain is extremely common. Unfortunately, it seems to increase in frequency as we age. Sleeping with the cervical spine in the wrong position or working in one position for too long with the neck bent may cause sudden neck discomfort. Driving or just riding in a car for long distances sometimes is followed by a gradual onset of neck pain. The cause may be anything that overloads the neck muscles. It really doesn’t matter except for the fact that the cause is known and steps are taken immediately to change it. Something as simple as changing the height of a chair or repositioning a T.V. set or computer terminal may be all that is necessary. Stopping the car every one to two hours to get out and stretch the neck muscles helps to make the journey more comfortable. Massaging the neck muscles not only feels good but actually relaxes the muscles. Brief application of cold packs also helps.
In those cases where more than a small amount of neck pain is present or if the neck pain is associated with a headache behind the head, a medical evaluation is necessary. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment can be started to minimize the disability associated with this condition. Besides physical therapy and medications your medical practitioner may recommend certain products for you to use. The products along with the rest of the prescribed treatment may speed your recovery and prevent another occurrence. The following is a list of products that may help.
Soft cervical collar- this item is very helpful to relax tense neck muscles. It must be worn infrequently so that the cervical muscles do not weaken. The collar must not be too high so that opening the mouth is not affected. It must not be too tight(discomfort and possible skin irritation) or too loose(no effective support). Some collars are firmer than others and will provide more support but limit motion. Rigid collars are reserved for more serious conditions and should only be used on the advice of your treating health care practitioner.
Cervical Pillow – This is a product that will help alleviate neck pain that occurs from sleeping. It will maintain correct cervical alignment for both back and side sleepers. The pillows vary in shape depending on the manufacturer but all have a neck roll and a cavity for the head. Snoring may also be helped by this product.
Heat and Cold Neck Packs- Reusable, shaped packs ensure good contact with neck muscles. Some come with vibrating mechanisms to massage the neck muscles and help them relax. These products are worth purchasing if neck symptoms are chronic.
Home cervical traction- More severe neck muscle pain may benefit from traction. Home units apply a gentle traction to the chin and back of the head to stretch neck muscles and relieve spasm. This treatment is harmless but very effective. Again, it is intended to be used by people with a more chronic neck problem.