Neck Pain – How can Physiotherapy help?

Neck pain can arise for many different reasons.  It can be due to a range of different things including an injury or trauma, a muscular problem or a nerve irritation and is one of the most common reasons that people would seek the advice of a physiotherapist.  Neck pain with or without stiffness can also come on for no apparent reason at all or just build up slowly over time.  You may hear doctors and health professionals refer to your cervical spine and this simply means your neck.

The Symptoms of Neck PAIN And injuries

Neck pain can range from mild discomfort to severe, burning pain and is generally felt locally around the neck area – either on one side or both. It can sometimes radiate down to the shoulder or shoulder blades. Occasionally it can travel further down one arm and may even cause pins and needles in the fingers.  Neck pain can also be associated with other symptoms including headaches, jaw pain (or temporomandibular pain to use the technical term!), dizziness and feelings of nausea.  As physiotherapists, we would always say to get a doctor’s advice if symptoms are new or alarming to you.  We would be especially worried if you noticed numbness down both arms, any numbness in your face or tongue, any disturbances to your vision like double vision or problems speaking or swallowing.  Also if you have a history of cancer and you suddenly develop neck pain you should always discuss this with your doctor.

Despite everything, I’ve said above in the vast majority of cases a new onset of neck pain is absolutely nothing to worry about and usually the best person to help you manage your condition would be a physiotherapist.

What causes neck pain?

Any number of factors can cause, contribute to or worsen neck pain, including:

  • Degeneration “wear and tear” of the vertebrae/joints in the spine (you may have heard this referred to as cervical spondylosis or just spondylosis)
  • Worry and stress can contribute and even cause neck pain and as physiotherapists, we see often see people carry their tension physically in their neck and shoulders
  • Sleeping in an awkward position
  • Prolonged and improper use of a workstation
  • Motor vehicle accident or whiplash
  • Contact sports

However, the most common thing we see is what we call an insidious onset and all this means is there is no obvious cause and the symptoms have come on gradually over time.

Neck pain can be divided into two categories depending on how long you have been experiencing it. Acute neck pain means you have had it for less than 3 months and chronic neck pain is pain that lasts over 3 months and the physiotherapy treatment will differ depending on your symptoms and how long you have had them.

Neck pain is rarely due to a serious disease, even when very severe, and you can still recover quickly. Most neck pain originates from the muscles, ligaments and joints in the spine. The spine is extremely strong and very difficult to damage. In most people x-rays are not particularly helpful. They often show the normal changes that come with age – unfortunately, a bit like getting grey hair!

How we can help with your neck pain

There are lots of things that you can do to help yourself when you are experiencing neck pain either for the first time or as a condition you have had before.  The most important thing to do is to gently keep your neck mobile, without rolling your head right back, and avoid prolonged periods of resting your neck (this is the reason we very rarely see people wearing collars for neck pain now – because the evidence tells us the best thing to do is move it, not keep it still or stiff).  It may help to do regular neck exercises.  Whilst you have neck pain you should try to minimise the amount of time you spend in any static or awkward postures.  It may help to speak to your GP or pharmacist about pain relief if required and after 2-3 days you could use the application of gentle heat to help with pain relief and regaining mobility.  Remember you should always monitor your skin if using heat and allow the tissues to cool down for a sufficient length of time before reapplying heat packs.

Practising maintaining good posture will also help to look after the health of your neck in the long term and you should take regular breaks from potentially aggravating and repetitive activities.  At night it may help to use a good, supportive pillow to maintain sleeping posture and some people like to use a small folded towel in the nape of their neck to give the neck additional support.

Physiotherapy can be extremely beneficial in helping to manage neck pain.  Physiotherapy can help conditions such as spondylosis of the neck (arthritis), acute wry neck/torticollis, trapped nerve, facet joint pain, disc problems in the neck, nerve irritation and also following on from surgery of the neck.

What happens at your Physiotherapy appointment?

At your initial appointment, your physiotherapist will assess you and will be able to diagnose what they believe to be the problem with your neck.  They will then formulate a plan for you that includes both physiotherapy treatment but also all the correct things to do to help yourself.  Your physiotherapist will also be able to help you to identify the factors that contribute to your neck pain and how best to manage these, for example adapting your workstation and your working practices (see workstation assessment blog).  The physiotherapy treatment itself may include manual treatments (we call them mobilisations and manipulations) to help restore your neck movements and reduce pain and we can also use treatments such as acupuncture.  Your physiotherapist will provide you with advice on posture and a specific exercise programme.  Lots of people forget that as well as restoring movement to the neck it is also very important to strengthen the postural muscles of the neck especially if your job puts a lot of stress on the neck or you are returning to sport.

Next Steps

Book an appointment today at Roundwood Health Clinic if you need any advice or treatment.

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