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Understanding Your Neck and Back Pain

What is Neck and Back Pain?

The neck supports and assists in movement of the head. It is the most flexible part of the spine and consists of 7 cervical vertebrae, the cervical segment of the spinal cord, spinal nerves, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Neck pain can be secondary to a problem affecting any of these structures due to injury, trauma, or wear and tear.

Back pain or backache is pain felt in the back that may originate from muscles, nerves, bones, joints, or other structures in the spine due to injury, trauma, or wear and tear. Back pain is one of the most common medical problems experienced by most people at some point of their life. It can be acute pain, usually lasting from a few days to a few weeks; or chronic pain, lasting for more than 3 months.

Causes of Back and Neck Pain

Some of the commonly noted causes of back and neck pain include:

  • Injury, trauma, or fractures
  • Infection
  • Strain or sprain
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Spasm or muscle tension
  • Muscle or ligament tears
  • Joint problems, such as arthritis
  • Abnormal growth, such as a bone spur or tumor
  • Degeneration of vertebrae
  • Herniated (slipped) or protruding disk
  • Osteoporosis and compression fractures
  • Obesity, which places increased pressure on your spine
  • Overuse, strenuous activity, or improper lifting

Symptoms Associated with Back and Neck Pain

Symptoms related to back and neck pain may include:

  • Radiating sharp shooting pain or dull aches
  • Numbness
  • Stiffness or achiness
  • Weakness
  • Pins and needles sensation
  • Headaches

Common Back and Neck Conditions

Common conditions associated with back and neck pain include:

  • Cervical spondylosis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Cervical stenosis
  • Cervical disc herniation
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lumbar spondylolysis
  • Musculoligamentous strain of the lumbar vertebrae
  • Lumbar spondylolisthesis
  • Herniated nucleus pulposus of the lumbar vertebrae

Diagnosis of Back and Neck Pain

Your physician will review your medical history and physical exam to elucidate reasons for your neck and back pain. You may also have to undergo X-rays for a detailed view of the affected area. If this is not sufficient to identify the cause, MRI of the affected region may also be ordered for viewing images of soft tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels, which may aid in the diagnosis of a tumor, infection, pressure on the nerve, or inflammation. A blood test may be ordered as well to diagnose conditions such as arthritis.

Treatment for Back and Neck Pain

Treatment for back and neck pain is usually non-surgical and includes the use of:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications
  • NSAIDs or anti-inflammatory medications
  • Cold packs or heat packs
  • Exercises to strengthen muscles and ease pain
  • Injections for pain relief into the affected region
  • Nerve blocks that block pain signals from the affected nerve
  • Assistive devices such as a brace, sling, collar, or splint for extra support
  • Acupuncture

These measures can help to relieve pain and discomfort; however, if they fail to yield satisfactory results, you may require surgical treatment and your physician will decide on the appropriate surgery based on your specific condition.

Prevention of Neck and Back Pain

The following measures may help in preventing neck and back pain:

  • Maintain correct posture while standing, sitting, or sleeping
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoiding heavy lifting and practicing correct lifting techniques
  • Proper warm-up exercises with adequate stretching and flexing
  • Enough calcium and vitamin D in the diet
  • Smoking cessation
  • Regular strength training to strengthen back and neck muscles
  • Proper use of computers, telephones, and other similar equipment