Neck pain: causes and treatment methods

Most neck pain is acute and is caused by tension. What other causes there are and what helps against pain, you can find out here.
What is neck pain?
Countless nerves, seven vertebral bodies and lots of muscles converge in the neck - and the cervical spine does hard work every day to keep the heavy head straight. So it is actually no wonder that many people regularly have to struggle with neck pain. They are caused by muscle tension, which in turn is triggered by incorrect posture or drafts, for example. In most cases, neck pain is acute and can be treated well, for example with massages or physiotherapy. If the complaints last longer than three months, they are called chronic neck pain.

Normally, our neck can withstand a lot. This means that when it comes to neck pain, the muscles must have been under excessive strain for a long time. Therefore, neck pain rarely comes alone: The pain often radiates, for example, into the head, the shoulders or into the arms. In the worst case, numbness in the fingers or paralysis can occur. The so-called stiff neck is also common - it severely restricts head mobility and allows the head to be turned to the right, left, up or down, usually only in pain.

Acute and chronic neck pain
Acute neck pain is a sign of current overstrain and tension in the muscles and usually lasts from a few days to a maximum of three weeks. It is usually caused by rather harmless causes such as poor posture or an unfavorable lying position when sleeping. Even when we are stressed, we tend to suffer from neck tensions, headaches, etc. It is estimated that every third German has acute neck pain at least once a year.

If the complaints last longer than twelve weeks, the cause is usually physical wear and tear, which in turn can lead to other diseases. Chronic neck pain can cause the following additional complaints:

Headaches up to migraine
respiratory disorders - the stiff neck extends to the chest and flattens the breathing
Shoulder Inflammations
Slipped disc
Cervical spine syndrome ("cervical syndrome" or "cervical spine syndrome") - this refers to general complaints in the neck area, e.g. tensions that cause radiating pain or a persistently stiff neck

Causes of neck pain
Usually there is no serious illness behind it, but neck pain can have many possible causes, which can be divided into different areas. Here follows an overview:

Neck pain due to signs of wear
Slipped disc: Slipped discs in the cervical spine are rare, but possible. 
Osteoporosis: Bone loss, which mainly affects women after the menopause, can also manifest itself as neck pain. 
Rickets: Here a vitamin D deficiency leads to bone growth being disrupted and the muscles throughout the body being weakened. 
Osteoarthritis: Age-related joint degeneration can also affect the joints of the cervical spine.
Chondrosis: Age-related wear and tear of the intervertebral discs leads to neck pain, among other things.
Spondylosis: This is a stiffening of the spine caused by changes in the intervertebral discs.
 Cervicocephalic syndrome: Changes or age-related signs of wear and tear lead to headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness and/or visual disturbances in addition to neck pain. The neck mobility decreases, neck pain sets in.
 Cervical spinal canal sterosis: The spinal canal of the cervical spine, in which the spinal cord runs, narrows. In addition to neck pain, numbness and paralysis may occur.
Neck pain due to muscle tension
Cold / Flu
incorrect postures and / or loads
Psychological factors, e.g. stress or anxiety
Strained muscles in the neck area
Wryneck (muscles are excessively active and tense quickly, resulting in a crooked posture of the head)
Neck pain due to injuries
Vertebral fractures (Caution: If a vertebral fracture is suspected, extreme caution must be exercised in first aid, as paraplegia is possible)
Other diseases that cause neck pain
Tumors / Metastases
Intervertebral disc inflammation
Fibromyalgia (chronic pain disorder that can cause constant fatigue and sleep disturbances in addition to pain throughout the body)
Meningitis ("meningitis", inflammation caused by bacteria, which leads to neck stiffness in addition to headaches, fever, confusion and nausea
Scoliosis ("crooked back", inclination of the spine)
Rheumatic diseases, e.g. rheumatism or degenerative arthrosis
Abscesses in the throat (they can also lead to shortness of breath or even suffocation, in this case quick medical help is required)
In addition, pain from diseases of the internal organs such as the heart or liver can radiate to the neck.

Neck pain? These symptoms require medical attention!
Neck pain often occurs together with other symptoms - which are not always harmless. Although they are rarely associated with serious illnesses, if the following symptoms occur in addition to the neck pain, quick medical help is important:

Headache together with nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, sensitivity to light, paralysis, stiff neck, pain when the chin is moved down towards the chest. This can be a meningitis - the emergency doctor should be called immediately!
Fever, chills, unexplained weight loss
Pain is as strong at rest as it is in motion
numbness and/or constantly falling asleep limbs
Symptoms of paralysis
Care should also be taken by patients with neck pain after an accident or those who have already had back or neck disorders, for example a slipped disc.

Doctor's diagnosis
On the basis of discussions about the existing complaints and a physical examination, the family doctor can often make an initial diagnosis of acute neck pain. The main focus is on the mobility of the neck and head, but the doctor will also check whether pain occurs when touched or pressed. Depending on the suspected cause, an imaging procedure such as computer tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be used. In cases of numbness or paralysis, which indicate possible nerve damage, a neurological examination is also necessary for neck pain.

Treatment of neck pain: Which therapy helps?
There are various therapy options for acute neck pain, which are designed to help relax the tense muscles so that the pain disappears and the mobility of the neck and head is improved again. The following treatments are useful:

Physiotherapy: On the one hand, you can learn exercises that help to build up the neck muscles, and on the other hand, massages are used to loosen and relax the aching muscle areas.
Acupuncture: With the help of acupuncture needles in the right parts of the body, the body's energy flow is improved, which reduces pain.
Injections: Irritated nerve roots are injected with anaesthetics, which prevents the pain stimulus from reaching the brain. If the pain subsides, the muscles also loosen up more easily.
Manual medicine: Tension and muscle blockages can also be treated with the help of chiropractic or osteopathy.
Heat treatment: Heat relaxes hardened muscles and can relieve pain. A cherry stone pillow or a hot water bottle is often enough, but heat patches are also an alternative. In general, the neck should be kept warm, for example by wearing a scarf.
Relaxation techniques: With the help of relaxation techniques, e.g. autogenic training or progressive muscle relaxation, neck pain can also be treated and prevented.
Medication: Non-prescription medication with active ingredients such as ibuprofen or diclofenac can be taken at short notice in consultation with the doctor.
Surgery for neck pain is only necessary in very rare cases and for serious causes of the complaints.

How can I prevent neck pain?
In order to prevent neck pain from occurring in the first place, there are a number of things that should be considered in everyday life. The following tips will help you to prevent complaints:

Neck and back-friendly workplace: The desk chair should be ergonomically designed so that you can sit upright. At best, your feet should be hip-wide apart on the floor, your arms should be at right angles to the tabletop and horizontal to the keyboard. If you talk on the phone a lot, it is better to use a headset instead of always getting the receiver wedged between your ear and shoulder. It is also important to get up at least once an hour and walk around a bit and change your sitting position regularly.
Avoid drafts: Cold drafts often cause acute complaints. A scarf can also help here.
Strength training: strong back and neck muscles can also prevent neck pain. Targeted strength training in these areas strengthens the muscles.
Pillow and mattress: A mattress that is gentle on the back is just as important as a suitable neck pillow.
Exercises and stretching against neck pain
With various loosening exercises and small stretches, the neck muscles can be relaxed, which can prevent neck pain. The following exercises are useful:

Loosening shoulders: Lift shoulders when inhaling and drop them again when exhaling deeply. Repeat this five times. Additionally, you can circle your shoulders and shake your arms.
Stretch your back: Place the palms of your hands against your forehead and bend your head down towards your chest against slight resistance from your hands. Then cross your hands behind your head and slowly straighten them up again - this goes all the way up the spine.
Stretch the neck: Lay the head slowly on one side, while pulling down the shoulder on the other side and letting the corresponding arm hang down. This stretches the lateral neck muscles. Repeat for the other side.
In general, everyone should take a few minutes a day for neck pain exercises.


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