Common Causes of Neck Pain

Posted by Steve Sudell on

Our bodies are amazing feats of biological engineering, with each body part playing a crucial role in making the muscles, bones, and ligaments work seamlessly in unison as they seek to obey the impulse commands sent via the brain. When in harmony, this well-oiled machine is capable of incredible feats; however, when even a minuscule part is out of alignment or damaged, everything else can be thrown out of whack.

We are the only creatures we know with the ability to speak and think not only in a problem-solving way but in the abstract as well; much of this is due to our large brains, which weigh approximately three pounds on average. Add the weight of the skull and other elements to this, and you are left with a head that weighs approximately ten to eleven pounds, or roughly the same weight as that of a bowling ball. Supporting this hefty processing and impulse center is the neck, which is composed of the uppermost bones of the spine, muscles, and ligaments. These elements are given the difficult task of not only holding up the head but aiding it in all the daily requirements be they athletic or work-related.  

It is easy to overlook or take for granted what a vital role your neck plays in your day-to-day life. Think about it, you quite literally use it for almost every activity you do, from sleeping to rising from bed, reading, driving, walking, running, scanning, and communicating. You just do not fully appreciate it until something goes wrong with your neck. When you get a crick in the neck when you turn one way, or when you experience chronic neck pain, as nearly one in four Americans regularly do, it can be debilitating. To prevent neck pain from occurring it is crucial that you know the most common causes of neck pain. Below, we will discuss the most common reasons for neck pain and give you tips for preventing them.

The Muscular Structure of the Neck

Many of the common reasons for neck pain have to do with a fault in the structural integrity of muscles within the neck. The neck’s health is often at the mercy of the curvature of the spine beneath it as well as the location of the head above it. The neck is composed of five muscle groups, they are:

  • Levator scapulae muscles: two muscles on the back and the side of the neck.  
  • Pectoralis minor muscles: two thin triangular muscles located on the upper part of the chest.
  • Scalene muscles: three pairs of muscles that help the neck to rotate.
  • Suboccipital muscles: four pairs of muscles the help the head to rotate.
  • Subscapularis muscles: two large triangular muscles located by each shoulder joint.

If either the spine or head is not optimally aligned, the neck can be susceptible to injury or degenerative effects as time and wear and tear accumulate.

Common Causes for Neck Pain

Poor Posture – Likely the most common mundane cause for neck pain has to do with a bad posture. Our parents grew up in a rigid culture when it came to social norms, many of them had proper posture become an ingrained aspect of polite society. “Sit up straight,” kids were regularly told. Those who didn’t heed their parent's warnings did not do their chiropractic health any favors. Hitherto, in a digital generation and time, when we are always hunched over our computers or looking down at our phones, slouching is an even bigger problem. This forward head posture brings the neck slanting out in front of the shoulders, rather than being directly over the shoulders.

The neck is made to support the weight of the head when it is straight up, but that weight becomes harder to bear when not vertically aligned. This posture requires the suboccipital muscles and the muscles of the upper back and neck to have to continually work harder to counterbalance the additional weight of gravity on the head, causing headache in some cases. This forward pull causes stress to the lower neck's vertebrae. In the long term, this can lead to degenerative neck issues or degenerative disc disease. To make matters worse, this position typically means that your shoulders are forward and upper back rounded, which not only helps exacerbate neck issues but can also lead to shoulder problems. The higher the frequency and duration of poor posture, the likelier a person will experience neck or shoulder pain. So, if you have commonly experienced neck pain, look in a mirror when you sit, work or walk and check yourself. You can improve neck posture by making sure your shoulders should be back, chest out, and head held high over your shoulders. If you catch yourself slouching regularly, this could be the reason why you are experiencing neck pain.

Bad Sleeping Position – One of the common reasons for neck pain is because people regularly sleep on their neck the wrong way. As mentioned, the body's spine is composed in a specific alignment, and it is not ideal if it is regularly unaligned. We spend a third of our lives sleeping. That is a third of your life that you can be putting your neck in an optimal position or a suboptimal one. Also, consider the fact that many people sleep in the same position for hours, when sleeping you may be in the same poor position for hours at a time, only making things worse. Chiropractors recommend two sleeping positions that are easy on the neck: on your side and your back. While many prefer to sleep on their stomach and have been doing so for years, it is bad for the spine since it arches the back and forces the neck to turn to one side or the other. While this can be a hard habit to break and it is easy to shift unknowingly in your sleep, it is worth it if you are experiencing neck pains.  

A pinched nerve – A common cause of neck pain, especially when pain occurs when trying to look in a certain direction, is due to a pinched nerve. Nerves extend from the brain and spinal cord down into the rest of the body.  They are responsible for sending vital messages throughout the body including warning signals like pain. A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve experiences compression, either from repetitive motion or holding your body in a position for a long time, such as when sleeping. When inflammation occurs around the nerves, that puts pressure on the nerve root of the spine, which can lead to neck pain or make the pain go from the neck and into the shoulder. While a pinched nerve can be a minor issue, it could also be the symptom of adverse changes to the spine's bones or issues such as a herniated disc . As it can create compression on the spinal nerve, a herniated disc can be painful. Because nerve damage can be negligible or severe, the issues that later arise can range from short-term to lifelong problems, so it is wise to receive diagnosis and treatment right away and do everything in your power to avoid long-term damage to the spine.

Repetitive Motion – People who have occupations that regularly lead to poor posture or necessitate regular or prolonged neck extension can be a common cause for neck pain. If someone is on the phone all day, every day, and regularly talk with the phone tucked into their shoulder, or avid golfers who stand over their ball hundreds of times and perform their swing one way, or someone who is at their computer fifty hours a week, this will naturally wear away at the discs and bones in the neck. To avoid the strain of constant repetitive motion, chiropractors advise you to work out and build up the muscles in your neck, to stretch regularly, and to take regular breaks in order to relieve the neck muscle strain.  

Sports Injury and Whiplash- What should be the most obvious common cause of neck pain is an injury. Such injuries generally occur through incidental trauma when the head is either flung backward, known as hyperextension, or forward, known as hyperflexion. Landing directly on the neck or head can lead to injuries of compression and rotation, which can lead to broken bone discs, and soft-tissue injuries. Hyperflexion is what you likely know as whiplash, the nonmedical term for neck pain that arises from damage to the soft tissues of the neck, which are the muscles, tendons, ligaments.

This damage occurs when a large amount of force or motion is applied to the neck that results in movement that goes beyond the scope of the neck's regular and safe range of motion. This strain pulls and strains the necks muscles and ligaments, and is typically caused by a car crash, or athletic accident. Generally, if you experience a big fall or crash, you will know right away, if not by the next day. If you do suffer whiplash, it is wise to go to the doctor and confirm there is not any severe structural damage. If there are, you should discuss a treatment plan with your doctor.   

Bruxism – One of the more obscure natural causes for neck pain results from bruxism, which is the "involuntary grinding or clenching of teeth with excessive force usually during sleep." This type of neck pain may be harder to diagnose, especially if you do not have a partner to hear you grinding your teeth while you sleep. That said, in addition to neck pain, grinding of the teeth typically also leads to symptoms such as an aching jaw, migraine headache, or shoulder pain. The jaw is an incredibly strong body part, capable of clenching together and exerting greater than two hundred and fifty pounds of force onto an object.

This is important for chewing, especially for humans during the hunting and gathering times when sustenance was more dependent on eating what you found than on what you wanted. When the jaw clenches all night, the force of this can lead to irritation in the temporomandibular joint, which connects the mandible to the skull. When the jaw flexes, the muscles around the next tighten in an attempt to support the head and spine. While this is fine in moderation, regular clenching or grinding can lead to neck pain. In most cases, scientists believe bruxism is triggered by stress and is a subconscious act by the body to lower its stress levels. If you regularly grit your teeth, whether in your sleep or during the day, it may be wise to try using a mouth guard, especially at night in order to easily prevent a common cause for neck pain.

Arthritis – As you age and your body endures more wear, tear, and general degeneration, so too go the bones. This gradual deterioration can lead to rheumatoid arthritis or cervical spondylosis, which is also referred to as cervical osteoarthritis of the neck. Although these conditions can be painful, treatments like traction for neck pain can alleviate stiffness. Both of these issues arise from joint damage and are the most common cause of neck pain for people over the age of fifty. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include neck stiffness and pain, headaches, neck spasms, irritability, issues with sleeping, fatigue, clicking sounds in the neck, and numbness or weakness in the hands, arms, legs or feet.

Conclusion

The neck and the muscles that support it play a crucial role in helping your body function optimally. When the delicate structures of the neck are thrown out of whack, short-term pain and long-term problems can ensue. Because of this, it is essential that you get ahead of your neck pain and do everything in your power to build up and protect the muscles supporting it. Be sure not to neglect these muscles in your workouts and stretching routines, sleep on your side or back, and work on improving your posture. Although these may seem like petty adjustments, they can relieve stiff necks and prevent the vast majority of common neck pain problems.

Sources

“Exploring the Causes of Neck Pain and Disability as Perceived by Those Who Experience the Condition: A Mixed-Methods Study.” https://www.hindawi.com/journals/isrn/2012/971328/

“Identifying and Treating the Causes of Neck Pain” https://www.medical.theclinics.com/article/S0025-7125(14)00030-3/pdf

“A Pain in the Neck--Nontraumatic Causes of Neck Pain” https://www.mdedge.com/emed-journal/article/79584/imaging/featured-article-pain-neck-nontraumatic-causes-neck-pain