If your car was rear-ended two days ago, and you wake up with neck pain, the cause is obvious: you’re likely suffering from whiplash. Other times the cause of your neck injury can be more mysterious. Sometimes you wake up with a “crick” in your neck and have no idea why.
Understanding the cause of your neck pain is the first step in figuring out how to treat it. Here are some of the most common causes:
- Car accidents. When you are hit from behind in a car, your head is thrown forward and backward quickly, which can damage muscles, ligaments, and sometimes nerves in the neck.
- Athletic injury or fall. Football players are especially prone to neck injuries, but a mishap that damages the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the neck can happen to anyone.
- Overuse injuries, stress, and poor posture. If you’re doing repetitive tasks that involve the upper body and arms, you may find yourself with a stiff neck. Sitting hunched over your computer too long while stressing about a tight deadline can also be a culprit.
- Poor sleeping position. Sleeping with your neck twisted at an odd angle (perhaps while on your stomach) or using pillows that are either too full or too flat may cause you to wake up achy.
- Arthritis. Over time the cartilage that helps cushion the bones in your neck may wear down, causing pain.
- Pinched nerves. Sometimes bone spurs or herniated disks will put pressure on nerves in your neck, causing pain and sometimes numbness or tingling in your arms or hand.
- Illnesses. Some serious illnesses, such as meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.
Important: If you or someone you are with has severe neck pain or loss of movement or feeling after an accident, get emergency help immediately. They could have a broken or dislocated spine, which could injure the spinal cord and cause permanent paralysis.
The symptoms you’re suffering can sometimes help a neck injury doctor identify the cause.
- Aches and stiffness, sometimes spreading to your back or arms, can be a sign of a sprain or strain in the muscles or ligaments.
- Shooting pain that includes a burning or stinging sensation and sometimes numbness or tingling can indicate a pinched nerve.
- Neck pain accompanied by the shoulder and arm pain and sometimes headache, dizziness, or nausea can mean you have a torn or ruptured disc.
- A stiff neck accompanied by fever, headache, and sometimes vomiting can be a sign of meningitis.
To diagnose the source of your pain, a neck injury doctor will ask you questions about your health and history and do a physical examination. He or she may also use X-rays, MRI scans, CT scans, and blood tests to help figure out what’s causing your pain.
How to Treat Neck Injury Pain
Often a neck injury will resolve by itself with rest and over-the-counter medications. If your pain continues for a week or more, though, you may want to see a doctor. In some cases, your general practice physician will refer you to a pain specialist or a doctor who specializes in neck injuries.
Neck injury treatment can involve the following:
- Ice, rest, muscle relaxants, and over-the-counter pain medication.
- Physical therapy, including stretching and other exercises.
- Prescription-strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other prescription medications.
- Chiropractic care, massage therapy, or acupuncture.
- Epidural steroid injections can provide pain relief for three to four months.
- Nerve blocks, which contain local pain medications to control acute pain.
- Radiofrequency ablation, or rhizotomy, which is a minimally invasive procedure that destroys the nerve fibers in the neck that carry pain signals.
- Spinal cord stimulation involves implanting devices in the spine that deliver mild electrical pulses to block the transmission of pain.
- Surgery. While seldom necessary, surgery can be an option if other treatments aren’t providing enough relief.
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