Your neck is flexible and strong enough to hold your head up, but it’s also part of your spine and is subject to wear and tear, injury and disease. If you’re having neck pain, the single worst thing you can do is to simply ignore it, hoping it will just go away on its own. Even if the problem turns out to be minor in nature, it’s best to find out what’s going on before things get worse.
Neck pain can be triggered by things like poor posture, spending too much time hunched over a computer, or even the unconscious habit of gritting your teeth when you’re tense or stressed. Unfortunately, there are also some serious conditions that could be causing your neck pain. Three of the most common are
- a bulging or herniated disc
- degenerative disc disease
- spinal stenosis related to osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease
Neck pain isn’t always confined to the neck. If a nerve root in the cervical spine becomes compressed due to a problem in the neck, pain may radiate down the arm from the shoulder all the way to the hand and even the fingers.
Bulging or Herniated Cervical Disc
The discs in your spine act as cushions between the vertebrae in your spine. Imagine them as biological “jelly doughnuts” that have an outer layer, and a soft, jelly-like inner core. As you age, these discs begin to show signs of wear and tear. The discs become dehydrated and their cartilage becomes stiff. These changes can cause the outer layer of a disc to bulge out sort of like a burger that’s too big for its bun. Eventually, part of the outer layer of the disc can crack, allowing some of the soft inner core to protrude. Now it’s a herniated disc (aka ruptured or slipped disc). Once a cervical disc herniates, it’s likely to cause pain by either compressing a nerve or inflaming a nerve root. As mentioned, that pain can then radiate down the arm all the way to the fingertips.
Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)
The same wear and tear that causes a disc in your neck to herniate, can also lead to degenerative disc disease. DDD can also be caused or accelerated as the result of an injury. The name, degenerative disc disease, is somewhat of a misnomer since it’s not technically a disease. More accurately, the term simply describes the degenerative process that cervical discs go through. Most people who live into their senior years will develop the condition. The pain associated with DDD is largely due to inflammation and the discs’ compromised outer layer being less effective at resisting motion within the spine.
Spinal Stenosis from Osteoarthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease)
Spinal Stenosis is caused by a narrowing of the open spaces within the spine — in this case, the cervical (upper part) of the spine. The most common cause of spinal stenosis is wear and tear changes that are related to osteoarthritis, which is also known as degenerative joint disease. When spinal stenosis occurs in the cervical spine, pain is felt in the neck and you may feel tingling or numbness in your arms. Many sufferers also report problems with balance and walking. If spinal stenosis becomes severe enough, your doctor may recommend surgery to create more space for the spinal cord and/or the nerves.
Whatever is causing your neck pain, the good news is that if you’re proactive about it and don’t wait to see a doctor, there’s a good chance that you can avoid surgery altogether. Physical therapy is your first line of defense, and if started early, can help you avoid having to survive on pain medications, which are often addictive, which lead to a whole other set of challenges. It can also eliminate the need for injections and most importantly, physical therapy can keep you out of the operating room!
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