As we have discussed, neck pain is a very common condition. However, if you were to ask a group of ten people suffering from neck pain to describe their symptoms, chances are you would get ten vastly different descriptions of their condition. Such is the reality of neck pain; it manifests in different ways for different people, sometimes even when the underlying anatomical issues are the same.
However, being able to clearly describe the symptoms of your neck pain will help your care team better understand what you are experiencing and increase their chances of being able to help you.
To that end, please read on below for a description of the seven most common types of neck pain.
1. Muscle Pain
Muscle strains, sprains, and tears are one of the most common catalysts of neck pain. Healthy muscle tissue is comprised of numerous muscle fibers bundled together to make a single muscle; within each of these fibers are bundles of myofibrils–bundles within bundles–that house the contractile proteins that perform the actual mechanics of muscle contraction. When the muscle is overextended, small tears can form in one or more of these layers of connective tissue, weakening the muscle and causing pain. The worse a muscle strain is the worse inflammation in the muscle will be, which leads to more swelling, pain, and a longer recovery period. Over time, strained and sprained neck and shoulder muscles may develop hard knots, called trigger points, that are tender to the touch and cause further muscle pain and soreness.
2. Muscle Spasm
A muscle spasm is the sudden, spontaneous, and painful contraction of a muscle. When this happens in the neck, you may experience pain, tightness, and an inability to move your head in one or more directions. When people say they wake up with a painful, stiff neck, it’s likely the result of a muscle spasm. While there is often no clear cause for muscle spasms, they can be the result of injury to a muscle or to a spinal disc or nerve problems; sometimes, they can even be caused by emotional stress.
Muscle tension or spasms in the neck can cause headaches, which are generally felt in the back of the head and the upper neck. The pain from a neck-related headache is usually described as dull or aching, with accompanying neck stiffness and tenderness. Unfortunately, moving the neck will generally make these headaches worse, so people are typically forced to rest until they pass.
4. Facet Joint Pain
The facet joints are places in the vertebral column where two adjacent vertebrae meet. Acute injury or arthritic degradation to these joints can cause pain that is described as deep, sharp and aching. It typically worsens when pressure is applied to the facet joint with neck movement, and in the morning or after extended periods of inactivity. This pain can also radiate to your shoulder or upper back, spreading discomfort throughout the entire upper body.
5. Nerve Pain
Nerve pain in the neck is very difficult to describe. Each vertebra serves as the exit point for one or more nerves that branch off of the spinal cord. Inflammation or anatomical damage near these exit points can pinch, impinge, or irritate the nerve roots, causing pain that can be described as sharp or dull, fleeting or constant, and accompanied by burning sensations or the feeling of pins and needles. Depending on the nerve involved, the pain may shoot down the arm or even into the hand and can be worsened by general movement or specific motions.
6. Referred Pain
Referred pain is pain that is triggered in one part of the body but appears in another. The classic example of referred pain is shoulder pain during a heart attack. In the neck, pain can be referred from the heart, esophagus, and other seemingly unrelated organ systems. Therefore, it is very important for a physician to determine the underlying cause of your neck pain, as it could a sign of a much deeper and more serious problem if it is being referred from elsewhere within the body.
7. Bone Pain
Most neck pain arises for injury and disease to the soft tissue structures of the cervical spine. However, it is possible for the bones themselves to be painful as well. Pain and tenderness in the cervical vertebrae is far less common than neck pain from the soft tissues, but it requires immediate medical attention because it could signal a more serious health problem. Furthermore, bone pain could be a sign of bone weakness or fracture, which destabilizes the cervical spinal column and could put your spinal cord at risk.
If you are experiencing any of the above-described types of neck pain, you should seek medical attention immediately. While your neck pain could be an isolated condition, it is possible that it’s actually a symptom of a larger, more serious condition. Even if the pain is isolated, a qualified medical provider can help diagnose the underlying cause of your pain and help you formulate a treatment plan to eradicate it.