Learn More about Upper Back and Neck Pain
If you are one of the 30 percent of American adults who experience neck pain each year, you know how uncomfortable and inconvenient pain in the neck can be. Upper back and neck pain can prevent you from going to work, taking care of your family, and doing the things you enjoy; this is especially true if you have severe or long-lasting neck pain. Learning about the upper back and neck pain, and their causes, can help you prevent and treat pain in your neck.
Neck pain affects the cervical area of your spine that extends from your skull to your shoulders. The bones of your spine sit on top of one another, somewhat like a deck of cards. Ligaments connect the bones of your spine together to create strong joints, and powerful muscles attached to the joints through tendons give you incredible mobility. Rubbery discs between the bones of the spine, or vertebrae, act as shock absorbers and keep the bones from grinding against each other as you move. This configuration allows you to nod your head up and down, swivel it from left to right, and move it smoothly in almost every direction in between. Abnormalities, injuries, or inflammation in these structures can cause neck pain.
Upper back and neck pain can range in severity, from minor pain that is easy to ignore to excruciating pain that interferes with your everyday activities, such as sleeping comfortably or getting dressed. The pain can be sharp or dull, located in one spot or spread across a general area. Muscle spasms in the neck, upper back, and across your shoulder blades may accompany the pain. Neck pain can also cause stiffness and reduced range of motion. Less commonly, tingling or shock-like pain may radiate down into your shoulder, arm, and/or hand.
The pain may be acute, lasting four weeks or less, or chronic pain that lasts for three or more months. The symptoms, severity, and duration of neck pain depend largely on its cause.
Common Neck Pain Conditions
Acute neck pain is often the result of muscle strain or the stretching or tearing of ligaments, often from underuse or overuse. Poor posture, sleeping in an awkward position, and trauma can cause acute neck pain. Repetitive motions, such as moving your head from side to side while dancing or swimming, can also lead to acute neck pain.
Chronic neck pain is often the result of a chronic condition. These painful neck conditions often require the attention of a doctor. In some cases, stretching and lifestyle changes help reduce pain. Other cases and conditions require medication; sometimes they require surgery.
Chronic neck problems that cause pain include:
Degenerative disc disease – the discs between the vertebrae lose height and become less flexible, which can cause pain to the disc and compress nearby nerves to cause pain
Osteoarthritis – occurs when the protective cartilage wears away to allow the vertebrae to rub together
Herniated disc – occurs when the outer layer of the disc tears to allow the inner gooey substance inside to leak out
Stenosis – narrowing of the spinal canal within the neck, which compresses the spinal cord
Neck Pain Exercises and Stretches
An exercise program for neck pain usually includes a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises.
Gently extend your neck by looking upward and bringing your head backward. Once your head is as far back as it will go without causing pain, try holding the stretch for 5 seconds before returning your head to the starting position. You should feel the stretching motion mostly in the front of your neck, but you may feel stretching in the back of your neck.
Gradually lower your chin toward your chest. Once you have flexed your head forward as far as it will comfortably go, hold the stretch for 5 seconds before returning your head to the starting position. You should feel this flex in the back of your neck.
Lateral Neck Flexion
Slowly bring your left ear towards your left shoulder while keeping your shoulders and back still as far as your head will go. Hold the flex for 5 seconds before returning to the neutral position. Repeat the stretch in the opposite direction. When you flex to the left, you will feel the stretch on the right side of your neck.
Gradually turn your head as far to the left as it can go without causing pain then hold the stretch for 5 seconds before returning your head to the original position. Repeat the stretch by turning your head to the right. This stretch is often the most difficult, so feel free to turn your head only partway if you cannot go further without pain.
Neck exercises and stretches work well for many people, but they do not work for everyone. Neck surgery is necessary when degeneration causes spinal cord problems, nerve problems in the neck or arms, or abnormal neck motion. The goal of surgery is to reduce pain and restore function.
Some patients find it difficult to sleep comfortably after surgery. The best position to sleep in after cervical spine surgery is either on your back with a pillow under your knees, or on your side with your legs bent and a pillow tucked between your knees.
For more information on upper back pain, conditions that cause neck pain, and treatments for upper back and neck pain, consult with your physician.