You've received your scan results and your Doctor tells you there's nothing wrong with your neck.. so why are you still getting pain?
Firstly, we need to understand a few basics.
The neck is a complex structure containing your muscles, nerves, blood supply and bones. It also has a very important role - to hold up your head, which weighs around 5kg. That's quite a lot of weight for your neck to handle each day! Imagine having to carry a 5kg weight in your hand 24 hours a day 7 days a week - you get the idea.
Now that you understand how much is going through a small part of your body, let's go into detail on the factors that may contribute to pain in that area.
Inactivity Muscles are there for a reason - to help you move. Ever heard of the saying 'use it or lose it'? Without moving, your muscles will weaken over time and it becomes harder for them to perform at an optimum level. When your muscles fail you, this is when you may start experiencing pain. It's your body's way of telling you to act quickly before it gets any worse. This doesn't mean you should jump to see your doctor right away. No, you haven't broken anything and there's no need to panic, but it's probably time to start getting a bit more active. So treat your neck like your car, it needs to be looked after. Without the right care, it will deteriorate over time, and with every passing minute, it becomes harder and harder to get back to the level it was. Unlike your car, which may need replacement; it's not impossible for your muscles to recover, it will just take longer to get back to your prime.
Injury Every muscle in your body is subject to wear and tear. Sometimes we get caught in the moment and move a little too quick or awkwardly, consequently putting a strain on your neck. This is also well-known as a pulled muscle. A strain, in simpler terms, means the muscle fibres are overstretched and small tears are formed in the muscle belly. If your neck muscles are weakened overtime from inactivity, your muscles may have an increased risk of sustaining a strain. When this happens, inflammation starts which leads to swelling and eventually, pain. As a result of this, your neck muscle becomes much weaker and will require a much longer time to recover. Depending on the severity of the strain, it may take up to 12 weeks for the injury to heal. It is recommended to see your physiotherapist during this time as they will be able to guide you on what you'll need to do to kickstart the recovery process and strengthen those muscles to avoid re-injury. Without following a strict strengthening program, your muscles will stay weak, even though pain may subside overtime. Another type of injury that may cause neck pain is when we try to break a collision or fall. The sudden break in movement and impact may cause your head and cervical spine to move too quickly, as a result causing whiplash and plausible neck strains.
Bad Posture How many of us are guilty of poor posture? Even as a physiotherapist myself, I have to admit defeat. Posture isn't my forte, and if we look around us, we'll be able to point out a few things with every single person we see on how they could improve their stance. Unless you're a ballerina, an acrobatic or a descent from the royal family, you probably haven't been painstakingly told over and over again to maintain a balanced posture. And unless this habit is instilled in us, we will continue to break the cycle of maintaining a good posture. So how does poor posture cause pain, one might ask? When we put ourselves in a certain awkward position, especially for an extended period of time where it's least optimal for the body to function; we are essentially over-stretching the muscles, tendons and other soft tissues which also put increased pressure on our joints. This, in turns, strains the muscles and joints, leading to pain.
Overwork Working without taking frequent breaks usually means your neck is exposed to repetitive movements, whether it is holding your head up in a certain position (e.g. working at desk) or doing a certain movement (i.e. turning) over and over again (e.g. tasks that involves repetitive head turns). Though your muscles are there to help you work, they still will fatigue over time as energy gets depleted; therefore they need to be given sufficient breaks so that they can recover. Too many repetitions may overload your muscles, resulting in a condition called repetitve strain injury. Pain is produced as a result of cumulative trauma to your muscles.
New activity My last point here is not of negative nature. We all get muscle aches every now and then when we put our body through any new type of activity, that is considered strenuous. Doing any physical activity that requires a lot of head movement may mean that you're more susceptible to muscle strain. This pain may not appear straight after your workout, but may be a day or two after, also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is caused by the lengthening of your muscle fibres during exercise, which inflicts microtrauma to the muscle fibres and connected to the lactic acid build up in our blood, which produces pain. This type of pain should subside in 72 hours and should not raise any concern.
Now that you know the reasons that may contribute to your neck pain, it is time to reverse your timeline and identify the cause. When you have done so, you may want to start doing some of these exercises. If you are more of a visual learner, you might find it easier to follow through with this video. And for further advice, don't forget you can always get in touch with me.
Olivia Ting is an in-house telehealth physiotherapist at Travel Physio. When she's not writing or treating clients for Travel Physio, you'll probably find her chasing sunrises or sunsets on a beautiful mountain somewhere.