19 September 2022

Pain in the neck?

19 September 2022

Pain in the neck?

Common neck injuries: types, causes, symptoms & diagnosis.

The neck comprises the cervical spine, surrounding muscles and many different glands (salivary, thyroid etc.). The cervical spine has seven spinal bones or vertebrae, spinal intervertebral discs, the spinal cord and many nerves, tendons and ligaments.  

All the tissues within the neck are susceptible to injuries that are of varying severity. Minor injury to the soft tissue can be painful and at times frustrating, whereas injuries to the spinal cord can be incredibly serious and even life-threatening. 

The muscles, tendons and ligaments in the neck tend to act as stabilisers when the brain and spine are at risk due to impact or sudden movement. The intervertebral discs of the cervical spine act as shock absorbers and are susceptible to acute injury and degenerative change which can occur as a result of prolonged wear and tear.

Most common injuries

Sprain and strains: Sprains occur when ligaments in the neck are injured, whereas strains refer to injury of muscles and tendons. These injuries can occur due to impacts to the head, excessive motion of the neck (for example when the neck is hyperextended due to a ‘whiplash’ injury in a car accident). 

Muscle stiffness: Stiffness of the neck muscles can be caused by overuse,  bad posture or maintaining an awkward position for a prolonged period such as when sleeping. These injuries are sometimes referred to as a ‘crick in the neck’. 

Nerve injuries: When bone, muscles, tendons or ligaments in the neck push up against nerves, they can cause pain referred to as a pinched nerve. 

Herniated discs: Injuries to the cushioning discs between the cervical vertebrae can occur as a result of acute injuries as well as degenerative wear and tear. When the soft tissue in the center of the disc extends out of position, it is referred to as a herniated, protruded or ruptured disc. 

Fractured vertebrae: Injuries to the cervical vertebrae are less common than injuries to the soft tissue in the neck but can occur as a result of impact to the head or hyperextension of the neck. 

Risk factors & prevention strategies

While most neck injuries occur as a result of an acute incident or degenerative wear and tear, genetics can play a significant role in an individual’s susceptibility to injury. If family members have a history of neck pain or arthritis, it’s a good idea to be particularly vigilant. 

Trauma or acute injury to the head or neck accounts for a large percentage of neck injuries. Athletes, particularly those engaged in contact sports, should be particularly vigilant and consider preventative therapies. 

Degenerative neck injuries such as ruptured and bulging discs are frequently caused by repetitive movements and overhead work. 

Prevention strategies include:

  • regular exercise, including strengthening back, neck, and core muscles 
  • maintaining a healthy bodyweight 
  • maintaining a good spinal posture while working, standing and sitting 
  • using caution while lifting heavy loads  
  • using ergonomic chairs and aids while working.

How MRI assists

A cervical spine MRI can be useful for diagnosing the root cause of both acute and chronic neck pain.  

An MRI scan will be performed if a patient’s pain hasn’t improved after initial treatment, or if pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as numbness, tingling or weakness.

Cervical spine MRI scans will often be ordered before or after surgery to the cervical spine or neck and can help diagnose a range of acute and degenerative conditions as well as infections, cancer or tumours in or near the spine as well as abnormal curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis, and other conditions.

Treatment options

Depending on the cause and severity of a neck injury, treatment options can include: 

Physical therapy: Physical therapists can help patients exercise and suggest stretches to reduce pain by strengthening muscles in the neck and improving mobility. 

Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers can help relieve pain and assist recovery from some injuries. Corticosteroid injections may be administered in some instances. 

Alternative therapies: Massage therapy and acupuncture can both help to reduce pain and inflammation and aid recovery from some injuries.  

Dietary changes: Cutting out inflammation-causing foods from a patient’s diet may help reduce symptoms of some neck injuries, particularly when combined with other treatment modalities.  

Surgery: Cervical spine surgery may be recommended in some instances where patients continue to experience pain and reduced quality of life after implementing other modalities.  

Get it checked out

If you are experiencing persistent neck pain and symptoms such as weakness or severe arm pain, seek medical attention to rule out other more serious pathologies. Your doctor may request diagnostic imaging studies like MRI, X-ray or CT, which will be important to help investigate the cause and to assist your healthcare practitioner create your treatment plan. 

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Our team of content writers create website materials that adhere to the principals set out in content guidelines, to ensure accuracy and fairness for our patients. Dr. Ronald Shnier, our Chief Medical Officer, personally oversees the fact-checking process, drawing from his extensive 30-year experience and specialised training in radiology.