Neck pain is pain felt in the back of the neck – the upper spine area, just below the head. When certain nerves are affected, the pain can extend beyond the back of the neck to areas such as the upper back, shoulder, and arm. It is estimated that neck pain affects approximately 30% of the US population each year. Neck pain can be caused by sudden trauma such as a fall, sports injury, or car accident, or by long-term problems in the spine.
Neck pain most frequently affects adults aged 30 to 50 years. Some studies indicate that women are more likely to suffer neck pain than men. Poor posture, obesity, smoking, repetitive lifting, office and computer work, and involvement in athletic activity are all risk factors for developing neck pain.
People with neck pain can have difficulty performing activities such as working, driving, playing sports, or simply turning their heads. The majority of neck pain episodes do not require surgery and respond best to physical therapy. Physical therapists design individualized treatment programs to help people with neck pain reduce or eliminate pain, regain normal movement, and get back to their regular activities.
People with neck pain may experience stiffness in the neck, and may describe the pain they feel as:
Neck pain caused by irritated nerves may extend into the upper back, shoulder blades, shoulders, arms, or hands. This condition is called “radiculopathy.” Your physical therapist can help determine if this condition is occurring, and will work closely with your physician and surgeon to determine the correct treatment.
The type and location of your symptoms depend on the tissue or structure that is affected, and the severity of the injury.
Neck pain can cause any of the following signs:
Neck pain can cause any of the following symptoms:
Your physical therapist will conduct a thorough examination that includes taking your health history. He or she will also ask you detailed questions about your pain or injury, such as:
Your physical therapist will perform tests on your body to find physical problems, such as:
If your physical therapist finds any of the above problems, physical therapy treatment may begin right away to help get you on the road to recovery and back to your normal activities.
If more severe problems are found with any of the testing, your physical therapist may collaborate with a physician or surgeon to obtain special diagnostic testing, such as an MRI. Your physical therapist will work closely with physicians and other health care providers to make sure that you receive an accurate diagnosis and the treatment and care you need.
Recent research has shown that physical therapy is a better treatment than surgery or pain medication (such as opioid medication) for relieving many cases of neck pain. Physical therapy treatments often can help people avoid the need for surgery or medication altogether.
Your physical therapist will work with you to design a specific treatment program that will speed your recovery, including exercises and treatments that you can do at home. Physical therapy can help you return to your normal lifestyle and activities.
The time it takes to heal each condition varies, but an individualized physical therapy program can be effective and efficient, and help heal neck pain in a matter of weeks.
Your physical therapist may advise you to:
Your physical therapist will work with you to:
Reduce pain and other symptoms. Your physical therapist will help you understand how to avoid or modify the activities that caused the injury, so healing can begin. He or she may use different types of treatments and technologies to control and reduce your pain and symptoms. These may include gentle hands-on techniques, known as manual therapy, that he or she will perform for you; specific neck movements that you will be taught to perform yourself; and the use of technologies, such as electrical stimulation or traction, as required. Physical therapists examine each person individually to determine exactly what type of approach will help reduce pain.
Avoid surgery. In most cases, a physical therapist can design an individualized treatment program to help relieve neck pain—even severe radiculopathy (pain that travels from the neck down into the arm or hand)—to help individuals with neck pain avoid surgery. In rare cases, radiculopathy requires surgery to relieve its cause.
Improve posture. If your physical therapist finds that poor posture has contributed to your neck pain, he or she will teach you how to improve your posture so healing can occur.
Improve motion. Your physical therapist will choose specific activities and treatments to help restore normal movement in any stiff joints. These might include “passive” motions that the physical therapist performs for you to move your spine, or active exercises and stretches that you do yourself. You can perform these motions at home, in your workplace, and before your sports activities to help hasten healing and pain relief.
Improve flexibility. Your physical therapist will determine if any of the involved muscles are tight, and teach you gentle stretching exercises that you can perform at home. He or she also may supervise your performance of special stretches during your physical therapy treatments.
Improve strength. If your physical therapist finds any weak or injured muscles, he or she will choose and teach you the correct exercises to gently restore your strength and agility. For neck pain, “core strengthening or stabilization” is commonly used to restore the strength and coordination of muscles around your spine.
Improve endurance. Restoring muscular endurance is important for people with neck pain. Your physical therapist will develop a program of activities to help you regain the endurance you had before the neck pain started.
Learn a home program. Your physical therapist will teach you strengthening, stretching, and pain-reduction exercises to perform at home. These exercises will be specific for your needs. If you do them as prescribed by your physical therapist, you can speed your recovery.
Return to Activities. Your physical therapist will discuss your activity levels with you and use them to set your work, sport, and home-life recovery goals. Your treatment program will help you reach your goals in the safest, fastest, and most effective way possible. For spine problems like neck pain, your physical therapist may teach you correct ways to lift objects (called “body mechanics”) that will help protect your spine from further injury.
As your neck pain is improving, it will be important for you to continue your new posture and movement habits to keep your neck healthy and pain free.
In rare cases of neck pain, surgery is necessary to relieve pressure on a nerve or on the spinal cord. If you undergo surgery, your physical therapist will work closely with you and your surgeon to help you regain motion and strength more quickly than you could on your own, and help you return to your daily activities as quickly as possible.