Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

Posted by Steve Sudell on

Two phrases speak truth to an interesting aspect of the human condition: "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," and, "You do not know what you have until it's gone." Although these are sayings typically brought up in the context of relationships and romance, they are a somewhat universal window into the human psyche that illustrates how difficult it is to truly value something until you no longer have it. When it comes to your health, fitness and chronic pain, this is especially true. It generally takes aging or a serious injury to be able to fully appreciate the painless mornings, days, and nights of years long past.

For generations, young people, emboldened by the recklessness of their youth and that universal feeling of immortality, have neglected their health and ignored their elders’ warnings about the possible long-term damage they might be inflicting upon their bodies be it with extreme sports, risky decision making, or harmful habits. As the wheel of time passes and the once young generation becomes the older one, their decisions catch up to them, often time in the form of chronic pain. It is at this point that they fondly remember their younger years, a time when they did not feel so fragile, when they did not wake up stiff or in pain. They now see videos of young men skiing off cliffs the size of buildings and can't help but mutter about how their spines and knees won't be thanking them come twenty years.

Injuries and pain can be debilitating, especially in the cases of chronic pain to the neck and shoulders. The muscles, bones, and ligaments that make up the structural integrity of the neck are under constant stress to not only hold up our ten-pound, bowling-ball-sized heads but to grant them flexibility and range of motion required for daily activity. Very few body parts are used so frequently and are so necessary for mundane human activity, let alone physical exertion. Because of this, even a small but daily crick in your neck can severely limit your range of motion and hamper your ability to accomplish regular tasks. While some form of pain is an inevitability as we age, there are steps you can take to mitigate stiff neck pain. First, though, it is essential that you are aware of the symptoms of chronic neck pain so that you can prevent long-term damage and get neck pain relief.   


General Chronic Neck Pain Symptoms

Symptoms that are connected with chronic neck pain typically include one or more of the following:

  • Cracking or Grinding: Someone experiencing the symptoms of chronic neck pain will likely periodically hear or feel their neck cracking, grinding or popping as they swivel their head. This could be the signs of bones rubbing, joints wearing, or the spine being out of alignment.
  • Decreased Range of Motion: An inability to turn the head one way or another or the feeling that the neck's natural range of motion has been hampered by pain or stiffness. A decreased range of motion is typically more worrisome if the neck pain is related to an accident or injury.
  • Difficulty lifting or gripping objects: Another symptom of chronic neck pain could manifest when it comes to gripping or picking things up. If you find yourself having issues, especially if accompanied by the tingling, weakness, or numbness in the fingers, there could be some damage to the nerves or muscles of your neck.
  • General soreness: A tender or achy pain that is mostly localized to one spot or area on the neck is often a symptom of chronic neck pain. Traction for neck pain is a treatment that is frequently used for treating general sorenesses.
  • Headaches: All too often, neck pain can distress the nerves and muscles in the head as well. Tension builds, muscles tighten, and causes a headache, or this tension can cause a pinch in the occipital nerve.
  • Jaw Pain: If you are unknowingly grinding your teeth at night, your TMJ may be causing the muscles in your neck to clench and overexert themselves while you sleep, leading to both neck and jaw pain.
  • Problems Sleeping: Many who suffer the symptoms of neck pain have difficulty sleeping due to the discomfort in their neck. This issue is often only exacerbated if those who experience neck pain sleep on their stomach, which is not recommended.  
  • Radiating pain: A pain that can radiate from the nerves in the neck to those in the shoulders and down into the arms. While the intensity of the never pain may differ, a radiating pain creates an intense burning sensation.
  • Sharp pain: This chronic neck pain symptom can be pain localized to one spot that feels like it’s stabbing or stinging deep into the neck. Such pain generally is felt closer to the base of the neck.
  • Stiff neck: Soreness and difficulty moving the neck, especially if trying to turn the head from side to side or up and down.
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness: If you have experienced serious neck trauma or a pinched nerve, it is possible to feel a “pins-and-needles,” or “hand-fell-asleep” sensations that go beyond the neck, radiating down into the shoulders, arms, and hands. It is common that only one of the limbs will feel pain radiating downwards into the arm.

Localized Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

The symptoms experienced with chronic neck pain may obviously differ for a variety of reasons, but an important indicator is discovering at what level along the cervical spine, especially in the cases of nerve compression. Because different discs are attached to different nerves, and because those nerves are connected to different paths along the body, the chronic neck symptoms from herniated C6 disk would be distinctive from those at another level.

C1 and C2: Two nerve roots located at the climax of the cervical spine. These controls the head and the motion of the head and a pinch or irritation to these spinal cord nerves could lead to headaches.  

C3 and C4: The C3 and C4 nerve roots are responsible for our breathing by regulating the diaphragm. Damage to these nerves or discs could lead to difficulty with breathing. If there is damage or a pinch to the C4 nerve root, pain can radiate from that pinched nerve down into the lower neck and shoulder.

C5 and C6: The C5 and C6 structurally support the rest of the neck. If the nerve root of the C5 is compressed or damaged, pain and weakness can be felt in the shoulders and upper arms. If the C6 is compressed or damaged, pain, numbness, and tingling may radiate through the arms and weakness may be felt in the bicep and wrist areas.

C7: If the C7 nerve root is compressed or damaged, pain or weakness may radiate into the back of the upper arm and into the middle finger.   

C8: If the C8 is compressed or damage, numbness, tingling pain, weakness of grip can radiate down the arm and end with the pinky.

Onset of Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

If you do see a doctor, one of the first things they will try and ascertain is the onset of these symptoms. By attempting to determine when and where these symptoms first occurred, a doctor can narrow down the most likely underlying cause to your chronic neck pain. While serious injuries or falls are often obvious, not all of the causes underlying chronic neck pain are. Generally, neck pain manifests in one of the following ways:

  • Delayed reaction to injury – Some neck injuries do not manifest immediately. Neck sprains from whiplash, for example, may take hours if not days after the injury occurred. In such cases, swelling or pain might worsen as time goes on.  
  • Gradually over time: Chronic neck pain may begin as a mild annoyance that only happens in the morning or towards the end of the day. With such cases, it might be hard to pinpoint an accident, injury, or activity you do that causes the neck pain. While these may not seem serious, they may be reoccurring and gradually grow more severe over time.  
  • An immediate reaction to injury: If you take a hard fall skiing, surfing or biking, you might know instantly that your neck is not right. Often times if you slept on it wrong, you will wake up immediately knowing you aggravated something in the neck.
  • Suddenly without exhibiting symptoms previously: There are times when neck pain occurs for seemingly no reason at all. One moment you are fine, and the next moment something is pinched or wrong.

Seeing a Doctor About the Symptoms of Chronic Neck Pain

While most neck pain or smaller injuries will improve with time, chronic neck pain is more consistent and indicative of something more significant at the root of the issue. While you should obviously seek immediate attention in the case of serious injuries such as a car crash, accident, or fall, you should also visit a doctor if you experience severe and persistent pain, pain that radiates into the arms or legs, or pain that is accompanied by weakness, tingling, numbness, or regular headaches.

After a discussion with the doctor about the symptoms regarding your chronic neck pain, he may be able to reach a diagnosis on the spot. If not, further testing may be required. For symptoms of chronic neck pain that could include using one of the following machines:

  • X-rays: The most common scan a doctor will suggest for symptoms of chronic neck pain. X-rays can show fractures, tumors, slipped discs, narrowing of the spinal canal, narrowing of space between bones, arthritic diseases, and spinal column instability.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): If the doctor believes that the symptoms of chronic neck pain are indicative of damage to nerves, tendons, or ligaments, an MRI will likely be requested. These machines use powerful magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses to produce detailed pictures of organs and other internal body structures. They can provide detailed data on the soft tissue, inner organs like the brain, and skeletal system.
  • CT scanning: A Cat scan is occasionally used as a substitute or in an addendum to an MRI. This is sometimes used as an alternative to MRI. Cat scan machines use X-rays to form images of the internal parts of the body.
  • Electrodiagnostic studies: Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction velocity (NCV) tests are occasionally conducted to identify neck and shoulder pain that is accompanied by weakness, numbness, and tingling.

Causes of Chronic Neck Pain Symptoms

There are a variety of common causes of chronic neck pain symptoms. They include;

  • Diseases: Rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, meningitis, or osteoarthritis can all cause chronic neck pain.
  • Herniated discs: Also referred to as nerve compression, herniated discs or bone spurs on the vertebrae of the neck can compress the nerves of the spinal cord leading to acute pain.
  • Muscle strains: If the neck muscle is overworked, overused, or overexerted they will let the body know they need a break. Too many days spent with poor posture, looking down at your cell phone, or sleeping on your stomach has stressed out the muscles in the neck. Find out how to improve poor neck posture to reduce muscle strains.
  • Trauma from fall or accident: If you experienced a serious fall or sporting accident, your neck might have experienced hyperextension or hyperflexion where it was strained as it was pushed past its natural range of motion. Whiplash, where the head is violently thrown backward and hyperextended, is one of the most common causes of chronic neck pain.
  • Worn out joints: Over time, the joints of your body wear down with use and age. As the cartilage protecting the bones from rubbing begin to deteriorate and bone spurs form, affecting the joints ability to move smoothly without hindrance or pain.

Conclusion

The symptoms of chronic neck pain differ depending on the location and severity of your injury or issue. If these symptoms persist, do not hesitate to go and see a doctor. By acting immediately, you can save yourself pain or further injury.   

Sources

“Neck Pain diagnosis and treatment” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/neck-pain/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20375587

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

“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/