Anatomy of The Neck: Causes of Neck Pain and How to Manage the Pain
In basic terms, the neck (cervical spine) joins the shoulders and chest to the head. The neck is one of the most complex and intricate structures in our body and includes the spinal cord, which sends messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The cervical spine is responsible for several crucial roles, including protecting the spinal cord, providing support to the head, and assisting the progress of blood flow to the brain.
Stresses to the neck, through trauma or everyday activities, can cause a variety of painful conditions. By understanding the anatomy of the neck and how each structure works, it’s easier to understand the sources of neck pain.
Anatomy of the Neck
The following are some of most important structures in the neck.
In the cervical spine, the spinal cord connects to the brain at the base of the skull. The cervical bones protect the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves, which relays messages from the brain to other areas of the body.
Nerve roots exit the spinal cord in the neck and provide control and sensation to different parts of the body based on the spinal level from where they exit, including signals for movement of the head, neck, arms and fingers, breathing, and skin sensation in the upper body.
Cervical Bones (Vertebrae)
The shape of the each of seven cervical vertebrae allows the vertebral arteries to move blood to the brain, protect the spinal cord, and allow the nerve roots to exit from the spinal cord. Additionally, the joints in the back of the cervical vertebrae (facets) are shaped to allow movement: rotation front-to-back, side-to-side, and left-to-right.
A major difference in the cervical vertebrae versus the other bones of the spine is that the cervical vertebrae have openings (foramen) for vertebral arteries to exit to bring blood to the brain.
Vertebral discs are located between each vertebra. The discs are responsible for absorbing pressure, while also enabling movement and flexibility in the neck.
The head is supported by several muscles in the neck, enabling movement.
Causes of Neck Pain
While there are many causes of neck pain, some of the most common causes include muscle strain, injury, nerve compression, and disease. Regardless of the cause, neck pain can interfere with daily life.
When neck muscles are strained, whether from poor posture or an accident, the muscle stretches too far and can tear. This is also known as pulling a muscle. When a muscle is pulled more severely, inflammation can occur and swelling can develop.
An unhealthy disc loses water and changes shape, which can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots in the neck. A compressed spinal cord or nerve root can cause pain not only in the neck but also into the arms and shoulders.
An injury such as whiplash, which can often occur in rear-end auto collisions where the neck jerks the head backward and forward, can strain the muscles and soft tissues of the neck.
Diseases ranging from degenerative disc disease to rheumatoid arthritis and meningitis can cause pain in the neck.
Speak with a physician to determine the root cause of your pain and to work out an effective treatment plan.
Managing Neck Pain
There are steps you can take on your own to alleviate, and even prevent, neck pain, such as using correct posture and stretching. If you are experiencing neck pain and seeking at-home approaches to minimize symptoms, consult with your doctor to determine if any of the following methods are right for you.
Poor body posture can cause pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. Here are a few best practices to improve your posture.
When standing, ensure you’re standing straight (not slouching), while gently pulling your shoulders back. During your daily commute, avoid slumping in your seat. At your desk, be mindful of whether you’re craning your neck, making sure to sit up straight. When sleeping, try to fall asleep in a spine-friendly position—on your back with your head forward. These small adjustments can make major improvements to your spine health.
Stretching and Exercising
There are stretches and exercises that can help alleviate pain in the neck, which you can do at home, in physical therapy, or with the guidance of a trainer. Shoulder stretches, which involve holding your hands together behind your back and slowly lifting your interlaced hands, are one example of a simple stretch that can have a major impact.
When managing neck pain, it’s also important to avoid certain exercises which can exacerbate pain and put you at risk of further injury. Weightlifting, for instance, should be avoided, as well as other activities which require bending forward or using your arms in front of your body. Ask your doctor for a more comprehensive list of exercises and stretches to avoid.
Seek Medical Advice from a Professional
Neck or arm pain can be a sign of a more serious issue. Talk to your doctor or consult with a surgeon to determine the cause of your neck pain and to find the best treatment plan for you.