The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice
17:S13-S22 (Nov/Dec. 2004)
Alan B. Douglass, MD and Edward T. Bope, MD
Neck pain is almost universal and is a common patient complaint.
Although the differential diagnosis is extensive, most symptoms are from biomechanical sources, such as axial neck pain, whiplash-associated disorder (WAD), and radiculopathy.
There is relatively little high-quality treatment evidence available, and no consensus on management of axial neck pain or radiculopathy.
The goal of diagnosis is to identify the anatomic pain generator(s).
Patient history and examination are important in distinguishing potential causes and identifying red flags.
Diagnostic imaging should be ordered only when necessary because of the high incidence of asymptomatic radiographic abnormalities.
First-line drug treatments include acetaminophen, cyclo-oxygenase 2–specific inhibitors or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. [NOTE: since September 30, 2004, the cox-2 inhibitors Vioxx and Bextra have been pulled from the market because they have been found to increase strokes and heart attacks.]
Short-term use of muscle relaxants may be considered.
Opioids should be used if other treatments are ineffective and continued if improved function outweighs impairment.
Adjuvant antidepressants and anticonvulsants should be considered in chronic or neuropathic pain and coincident depression.
Epidural steroids should be considered only in radiculopathy.
Physical modalities supported by evidence should be used.
[This included manipulation and mobilization]
If symptoms have not resolved in 4 to 6 weeks, re-evaluation and additional workup should be considered.
THESE AUTHORS ALSO NOTE:
The human neck is highly susceptible to irritation.
In any given month, 10% of people will have neck pain.
Neck pain generators include bones, muscles, ligaments, facet joints, and discs.
“Almost any injury or disease process within the neck or adjacent structures will result in reflexive protective muscle spasm and loss of motion.”
“Gradual collapse of the intervertebral discs and degeneration of the facet joints is a universal part of the aging process and, in some people, can lead to nerve or spinal cord impingement.”
Further, neck mobility is so important to normal human functioning that any disruption in its normal function is quickly noticed.
“By far, the most common causes are biomechanical: axial neck pain, whiplash-associated disorder (WAD), and cervical radiculopathy.”
Pain also may be referred to the neck from shoulder disorders, thoracic outlet syndrome, esophagitis, angina, and vascular dissection.
“Neck pain may also present as part of complex generalized pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia.”
This article focuses on the 3 most common sources of neck pain that are encountered by primary care physicians: axial neck pain, WAD, and cervical radiculopathy
“Axial neck pain (also known as uncomplicated neck pain and cervical strain) is the result of the complex interaction of muscular and ligamentous factors related to posture, sleep habits, ergonomics such as computer monitor and bifocal position, stress, chronic muscle fatigue, postural adaptation to other primary pain sources (shoulder, temporomandibular joint, craniocervical), or degenerative changes of the cervical discs or facet joints. The ICD-9 code is 723.1.”
Whiplash-associated disorder (WAD) neck pain results from acceleration/deceleration transfer of energy to the neck. Its pain generators include myofascia, ligamentous, disc, and facet joints. It most commonly occurs in rear-end motor vehicle crashes.
The Quebec Classification of Whiplash-Associated Disorders identifies 4 categories of injury (The ICD-9 code is 847.0.):
Grade I comprises general, nonspecific complaints regarding the neck, such as pain, stiffness, or soreness without objective physical findings.
Grade II comprises neck complaints plus signs limited to musculoskeletal structures.
Grade III comprises neck complaints plus neurologic signs.
Grade IV comprises neck pain plus fracture or dislocation.
“Cervical radiculopathy is motor and/or sensory changes in the neck and arms resulting from extrinsic pressure on a cervical nerve root, usually by osteophytes or disk material.” “Seventy to ninety percent of cases are associated with foraminal encroachment by degenerative bony changes; herniated disk material is present in most of the remainder [IMPORTANT]. An inflammatory response is probably necessary for the initiation of symptoms [IMPORTANT]. The ICD-9 code is 723.4.”
“Myelopathy is the manifestation of long tract signs resulting from a decrease in the space available in the cervical canal for the spinal cord. A number of factors contribute to extrinsic pressure, including the congenital cord diameter, osteophytes, protruding disk material, dynamic changes in canal diameter and the cord itself, and the vascular supply to the cord. The ICD-9 code is 721.1.”
One study found that 66% of adults experienced neck pain at some point in their lifetimes.
54% of adults have had neck pain in the most recent 6 months.
At any point in time, 9% of the adult population had neck pain.
“Neck pain accounts for 1% of all visits to primary care physicians in the US.
Axial neck pain is the most common type, and up to 32% will have moderate or severe long-term residual pain. [IMPORTANT: this indicates that a significant number of those with non-traumatic axial neck pain will have long-term residuals].
There are 1 million cases of WAD annually in the US.
There is little evidence for a link between the mechanism of WAD injury and chronic symptoms.
“In 11 high-quality studies, 19% to 60% (mean, 33%) of patients with WAD reported chronic symptoms.” [Again, IMPORTANT] [Freeman MD, Croft AC, Rossignol AM. Whiplash associated disorders: redefining whiplash and its management, by the Quebec task force. A critical evaluation. Spine 1998; 23: 1043–49]
7% of people who are asymptomatic 3 months after an accident will have symptoms after 2 years.
[This means their symptoms go away and then later return].
85% of people who are symptomatic 3 months after an accident will remain so after 2 years. [This means that if they do not recover within the first 3 months, they are very likely to have chronic symptoms].
Most patients with radiculopathy will have resolution of symptoms without surgery.
“However, a number of studies have documented progressive deterioration without surgery.”
Axial neck pain and WAD often present as pain or soreness in the posterior neck muscles, with radiation to the occiput, shoulder, or intrascapular region.
[IMPORTANT: Just because it radiates does not mean it is radicular in origin.]
Axial neck pain and WAD also often present with stiffness and headache and can be associated with local warmth or tingling.
“Radicular pain is sharp, tingling, or burning in a specific dermatomal distribution in the upper extremity.” [IMPORTANT]
“True radicular pain follows dermatomal patterns.” [IMPORTANT]
Radicular pain is aggravated by arm position and with extension or lateral flexion of the head.
Regarding radicular pathology, one study notes [Henderson CM, Hennessy RG, Shuey HM Jr, Shackelford EG. Posterior-lateral foramenectomy as an exclusive operative technique for cervical radiculopathy: a review of 846 consecutively operated cases. Neurosurgery 1983; 13: 504–12]:
1) 99% of patients had arm pain.
2) 85% had sensory deficits.
3) 79% had neck pain.
4) 71% had reflex deficits.
5) 68% had motor deficits.
6) 52% had scapular pain.
Cervical myelopathy may have complaints of insidious clumsiness, weakness, or stiffness in the upper and lower extremities. [NOTE: lower extremities].
Cervical myelopathy may present with deep, aching pain in the neck, shoulder, or arm.
Cervical myelopathy may also display arm or leg dysfunction and gait and balance difficulties are common. [Note again, leg and gait problems].
Cervical myelopathy may result in urinary complaints, such as urgency or hesitancy, but frank urinary or fecal incontinence is unusual. [IMPORTANT]
“There is no clear consensus on the management of axial neck pain or radiculopathy.”
“Morning stiffness that improves over the course of the day is sometimes indicative of rheumatic causes.”
“Fever, weight loss, night sweats, and other systemic symptoms are indicative of infection or neoplasm.”
Unremitting night pain may be secondary to a bony tumor.
“Gait disturbance, balance problems, sphincter dysfunction, or loss of coordination suggests myelopathy.”
The physical examination should include:
1) Cervical range of motion.
2) Shoulder range of motion.
3) Neurologic examination of sensory and motor function as well as reflexes is vital.
4) Spurling’s compression maneuver will often provoke radicular pain.
“Placing the affected hand on top of the head (abduction relief sign) takes stretch off of the affected nerve root and may decrease or relieve radicular symptoms.”
“An electric shock sensation down the center of the back after neck flexion (Lhermitte sign) is indicative of cervical spinal cord pathology such as cervical myelopathy.” [This can also occur in multiple sclerosis].
“One study of radiographs of asymptomatic persons between 50 and 65 years of age demonstrated that 79% of subjects had disk space narrowing, endplate sclerosis, or osteophytes.” [Gore DR, Sepic SB, Gardner GM. Roentgenographic findings of the cervical spine in asymptomatic people. Spine 1986; 11: 521–24].
“A study of magnetic resonance images revealed major abnormalities, such as bulging or herniated discs, foraminal stenosis, disk space narrowing, or abnormal cord signal in 14% of asymptomatic subjects younger than 40 years and in 28% older than 40 years.” [Boden SD, McCowin PR, Davis DO, Dina TS, Mark AS, Weisel S. Abnormal magnetic resonance scans of the cervical spine in asymptomatic subjects: a prospective investigation. J Bone Joint Surg Am 1990; 72: 1178–84].
“Radiographs are recommended in patients with WAD grade III or suspected grade IV (grade IV cannot be diagnosed without an radiograph) and in patients with a history of trauma.” [This is contradictory, because WAD grade I and grade II are a “history of trauma.”]
“Plain radiographs also should be considered in patients with axial neck pain unresponsive to 6 to 8 weeks of conservative treatment.” [IMPORTANT]
“Magnetic resonance imaging should be performed if myelopathy, infection, or neoplasm is suspected; in patients with radicular pain associated with motor or reflex deficits; and in patients with radicular symptoms that have not resolved in 6 to 8 weeks.” [IMPORTANT]
There are relatively few high-quality evidence specific studies for the treatment of neck pain.
These authors warn that acetaminophen [Tylenol] can cause liver toxicity in alcoholism, fasting states, hepatic disease, the presence of anticonvulsant drugs, or in the frail elderly, even at recommended doses.
“Acetaminophen toxicity increases substantially when it is taken in conjunction with a cyclo-oxygenase (COX-2)-specific inhibitor or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).”
NSAIDs can have gastrointestinal side effects.
“Muscle relaxants are not recommended for acute phase WAD because of limited evidence of efficacy.”
Opioid drugs have adverse effects such as constipation, sedation, and physiologic dependence, and there is no evidence that they produce significant or sustained improvement in neck pain.
These authors do not advocate trigger point injections for neck pain.
There exists no rationale for epidural steroid injection in nonradicular pain. “Their use should be reserved for clear radicular pain.”
“Intra-articular injection of steroids has not been shown to provide effective long-term pain relief, and they are not recommended in chronic WAD.”
These authors note that percutaneous radio frequency neurotomy works for facet pain, but note that “this technique is currently available only in research centers.”
Good evidence supports that early return to activity is important in WAD.
Exercise is recommended in WAD. [IMPORTANT]
“Manipulation of the spine directs a high-velocity thrust at one or more joints of the cervical spine. Mobilization includes all manual therapies directed at cervical joint dysfunction that do not involve high-velocity thrusts. Both modalities probably provide at least short-term benefit in patients with neck pain.”
“Both manipulation and mobilization are recommended in grades II and III WAD.” [Key Point]
Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy resulted in significant reductions in pain and increases in cervical range of motion in 4 studies of high methodologic quality.
“The following physical modalities may be helpful in individual patients, but their use is not currently supported by a reasonable quantity of high-quality scientific evidence.” [IMPORTANT “may be helpful in individual patients.”]
Heat therapy does not benefit neck pain.
Cervical collars should not be used, or at most be used for no more than 3 days in WAD grades II and III. Collar use beyond 72 hours probably prolongs disability.
Good-quality studies show no evidence of effect of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation on neck pain.
Good-quality evidence shows no benefit to using ultrasound on neck pain
One review found postural advice had a positive effect on acute traumatic neck injuries.
Available high-quality studies do not clearly show the effectiveness of cervical traction, and “no major recommending body has found convincing evidence of positive effect for traction in either acute or chronic neck pain, and none recommends it.”
No reviews show clear demonstration of effectiveness for acupuncture, acupuncture treatment is not currently recommended for any form of neck pain by any major recommending body.
1) Neck pain is an almost universal human condition and is among the most common complaints presented to family physicians.
2) Most neck symptoms are produced by biomechanical sources, such as axial neck pain, WAD, and cervical radiculopathy
3) There is relatively little high-quality evidence available that is specific to the treatment of neck pain, and there is a dearth of long-term outcomes data.
4) There is a high incidence of cervical radiographic abnormalities in asymptomatic persons.
5) Physical modalities supported by evidence of benefit should be used, including early return to usual activities, supervised exercise, electromagnetic therapy, manipulation, and mobilization.
[This sounds an awful lot like a standard chiropractic practice].
6) If symptoms have not resolved within 4 to 6 weeks, re-evaluation and additional diagnostic workup should be considered.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
1) Neck pain is almost universal and is a common patient complaint.
2) Most neck pain is biomechanical. [Important for chiropractors]
3) Whiplash injuries are a primary cause of neck pain, and there are 1 million cases of WAD annually in the US.
4) There is no evidence linking the mechanism of WAD injury and chronic symptoms.
5) In 11 high-quality studies, 19% to 60% (mean, 33%) of patients with WAD reported chronic symptoms.
6) There are very few high-quality treatment studies available for neck pain.
7) Many asymptomatic people have radiographic abnormalities.
8) Any injury or disease process within the neck will result in reflexive muscle spasm and loss of motion.
9) Cervical radiculopathy is almost always from extrinsic pressure on a cervical nerve root, usually by osteophytes or disk material, accompanied with inflammation.
10) 7% of people injured in WAD who become symptom free within 3 months will have their symptoms return and remain symptomatic after 2 years.
[This means their symptoms go away and then later return].
11) 85% of people who are symptomatic 3 months after a whiplash injury will still have symptoms 2 years later. [This means that if they do not recover within the first 3 months, they are very likely to have chronic symptoms].
12) Just because pain radiates does not mean it is radicular in origin.
13) Radicular pain is sharp, tingling, or burning in a specific dermatomal distribution in the upper extremity. [IMPORTANT]
14) Cervical myelopathy will often cause complaints in the lower extremities as well as urinary complaints. [IMPORTANT]
15) Acetaminophen [Tylenol] can cause liver toxicity in alcoholism, fasting states, hepatic disease, the presence of anticonvulsant drugs, or in the frail elderly, even at recommended doses.
16) Acetaminophen toxicity increases substantially when it is taken in conjunction with a cyclo-oxygenase (COX-2)-specific inhibitor or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
17) NSAIDs can damage the gastrointestinal tract.
18) Opioid drugs [Vicodin, Oxycontin, etc.] cause constipation, sedation, and physiologic dependence, and they do not produce significant or sustained improvement in neck pain.
19) Facet steroid injections do not provide long-term pain relief in chronic whiplash pain.
20) Exercise is recommended in whiplash-injured patients.
21) Cervical collar use beyond 72 hours probably prolongs disability.
22) Physical modalities supported by evidence to treat neck pain include early return to usual activities, supervised exercise, electromagnetic therapy, manipulation, and mobilization.
23) Manipulation and mobilization of the spine provides short-term benefit in patients with neck pain and are recommended in WAD grades II and III.