Neck pain is almost as common as lower back pain in older adults. As many as 10 to 20 percent say they experience neck discomfort every day, and up to 70 percent will experience it at some point in their lives, according to the .
Because there are many causes of neck pain, spine experts say make sure to consult a physician if you have severe pain causing radiating or throbbing pain down the neck and arms or if you feel any numbness or difficulty in walking. Causes of neck pain can include injury from a fall or an accident, degeneration of the spine’s discs, osteoporosis, a pinched nerve from tissue inflammation and osteoarthritis, which can cause a narrowing of the spine, called stenosis.
But most commonly, the culprit is strains and sprains to the muscles and ligaments, says David Kohns, a doctor of osteopathic medicine and clinical assistant professor in physical medicine, rehabilitation and pain medicine at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.
“The most common type of conditions that we come upon within the neck tend to be myofascial in nature or muscle-related pain,” Kohns says.
The reasons for these injuries are varied but most often are related to how people habitually hold their head and shoulders, spine experts say. The head weighs between 10 and 12 pounds, and if it is positioned out of alignment with the rest of the spine — for instance, looking forward and down at a mobile phone or laptop — an extra load is placed on neck joints, reducing range of motion and potentially causing discomfort.
“We spend our time with our necks in a forward position looking down and texting,” says Robert Medcalf, director of spine rehabilitation with Atlanta-based Resurgens Spine Center. “Those are the positions and movements that many times bring about an onset of [pain] symptoms.”
Science also shows that aging and lack of movement lead the muscles covering connective tissue, called fascia, to tighten throughout the body, creating sensitive areas called trigger points. This is how a seemingly harmless action like turning the head can trigger pain or muscle spasms.
“As we get older, fascia may get sticky and cause muscle stiffness,” says Christine Goertz, professor of musculoskeletal research at the Duke Clinical Research Institute and vice chair for implementation of spine health innovations in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Duke University. “And that can interrupt the normal movement of your body.”
Stress-related muscle tension or sedentary behavior (i.e., sitting too much) can also be causes of pain. For example, someone stressed and sitting for many hours may repeatedly hunch their shoulders, pulling the head forward and out of alignment, and cause tight muscles.
The good news is that most of the time, neck pain can be treated with an over-the-counter pain medication, a massage, a heating pad or an ice pack. Movement and stretching can also hydrate and loosen fascia and muscles, Goertz says. But if the pain returns, which it does for around a third of people, adding in a regular breathing and exercise routine targeted on the shoulders and neck muscles can help.
“Movement is probably one of the most important things that people can do to minimize the risk of having an acute pain experience turn into a chronic condition,” says Kohns.
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