Neck pain can arise from a number of different tissues in the neck. Quite often, pain is generated from the small joints in the back of the vertebra (called facets). Pain can also arise from disk-related conditions where the liquid-like center part of the disk works its way out through cracks and tears in the thicker outer part of the disk and can press on nerves producing numbness and/or weakness in the arm. It is possible to “sprain” the neck in car accidents, sports injuries, or from slips and falls. This is where ligaments tear and lose their stability which results in excessive sliding back and forth of the vertebrae during neck movements. When muscles or their tendon attachments to bone are injured, these injuries are called “strains” and pain can occur wherever the muscle is torn. There is also referred pain. Here, the injury is at a distance away from where the pain is felt. A classic referred pain pattern is shoulder blade pain when a disk in the neck herniates. Let’s take a closer look at two conditions often diagnosed and treated by chiropractors:
Spinal Stenosis: This occurs when the canals in the spine narrow to the point of pinching the spinal cord in the trefoil shaped central canal (called “central stenosis”) or when the nerve roots get pinched in the lateral recesses (called lateral recess stenosis). This can occur from arthritis in the facet joints, disk bulges or herniations, thickening of ligaments, shifting of one vertebra over another, aging, heredity (being born with a narrowed canal), and/or from tumors. Usually, combinations of several of the above occur simultaneously. When this is present in the neck, it can be more serious compared to stenosis in the low back as the spinal cord ends at the upper part of the low back (T-12 level) so only the nerves get pinched. Stenosis in the neck however pinches the spinal cord itself. Symptoms can include pain in one or both arms, but it’s more dangerous when leg pain, numbness, or weakness occur (called myelopathy). Rarely, loss of bowel or bladder control can occur which is then considered a “medical emergency” and requires prompt surgery.
Cervical Disk Herniation: As previously stated, the liquid-like center of the disk can work its way through cracks and tears in the outer layer of the disk and press on a nerve resulting in numbness, pain, and/or weakness in the arm. The classic presentation is the patient finding relief by holding the arm over the head, as this puts slack in the nerve and it hurts less in this position. The position of the head also makes a difference as looking up usually hurts more and can increase the arm pain/numbness while looking down reduces the symptoms. Your doctor of chiropractic will carefully test your upper extremity neurological functions (reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation as each nerve performs a different function in the arm), and can tell you which nerve is pinched after a careful examination has been completed. This condition can lead to surgery so please take this seriously.
The good news is that chiropractic care can manage both spinal stenosis and cervical disk herniations BEFORE they reach the point of requiring surgery. So make chiropractic your FIRST choice when neck pain occurs!