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Mechanical Neck Pain

What is Mechanical Neck Pain?

Mechanical Neck PainMechanical neck pain, also known as nonspecific or simple neck pain, is the most common form of pain in the neck, affecting two out of three people at some point in their lives. While the exact etiology of the pain is often unknown, most cases of non-specific neck pain are caused by mechanical factors such as sprains and strains of the muscles or ligaments in the neck. Inflammation of the facet joints or the joints between the vertebrae leads to aggravation of these structures during movement (i.e. when turning or bending the neck), giving rise to pain.

Other factors which can contribute to the development of mechanical neck pain include:

  • Poor posture (i.e. prolonged sitting in a ‘bent-forward’ position)
  • Physical overload
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Poor psychological health

Most cases of nonspecific neck pain are acute and resolve within three to six weeks with minimal intervention, although some people suffer from recurrent pain. However if neck pain persists for longer than three months, it is considered chronic and further treatment may be warranted. Furthermore, if neck pain persists or gets worse, it can cause numbness or referral pain into the arm.

Types of Neck Pain

In general, neck pain refers to pain which occurs between the occipital bone, thoracic vertebra, and the shoulder joint. While the majority of people suffer from non-specific or mechanical neck pain, other types of neck pain include:

  • Pain caused by inflammatory diseases, arthritis, bone disorders, or cancer
  • Wear and tear (degeneration) of the discs between the vertebrae in older people
  • Whiplash neck sprain
  • Sudden-onset torticollis (wherein the head becomes twisted to one side overnight,  making it painful to straighten the head; this type of neck pain typically clears on its own within a few days)
  • Referred Pain which spreads from the inflamed tissues of the neck to behind the eyes, shoulders, or between the shoulder blades; this type of neck pain is frequently the cause of headaches
  • Muscle spasms
  • Headaches
  • Stretching, strengthening, and endurance exercises to treat chronic neck pain
  • Treatment for depression/anxiety associated with chronic neck pain
  • Radicular Pain caused by a pinched nerve (physical compression of the nerve root) but which can be experienced anywhere along the length of the nerve, i.e. pain manifested in the thumb and index finger
  • Neck pain caused by serious injury to the vertebrae, spinal cord, or nerves in the neck

Symptoms of Mechanical Neck Pain

What are the symptoms of nonspecific neck pain? While pain begins in the neck, it often spreads to the base of the skull and/or shoulder. Typical symptoms include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Restricted movement of the neck
  • Pain when moving the neck, which may spread down an arm and even into the fingers
  • Sensation of ‘pins and needles’ in part of an arm or hand (caused by irritation of a nerve from the neck/spinal cord going to the arm)
  • Crunching sound when bending or turning the neck

Mechanical Neck Pain Treatment

The best advice for recovering from simple neck pain is to use anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants to ease the pain and to resume normal activities as soon as possible. Gently moving the neck in all directions several times a day will prevent the neck from stiffening up.

Treatment options for mechanical neck pain include:

  • Physiotherapy (i.e. heat, cold, traction, manipulation)
  • Gentle neck exercises
  • Learning proper sitting posture
  • Yoga/Pilates/Alexander Method for improving neck posture
  • Massage therapy
  • Pressure point therapy
  • A firm supportive pillow while sleeping

Prognosis for Mechanical Neck Pain

For cases of acute neck pain, the prognosis is very good. Symptoms typically improve within a few days and subside within a few weeks. However in cases of chronic or persistent neck pain, people will likely experience flare-ups as the pain comes and goes.