Description and Diagnosis
What is Cervical Pain?
The cervical spine is a marvelous and complex structure. It is capable of supporting a head weighing 15 or more pounds while moving in several directions. No other region of the spine has such freedom of movement. This combination however, complexity and mobility, make the neck susceptible to pain and injury.
This complex structure includes 7 small vertebrae, intervertebral discs to absorb shock, joints, the spinal cord, 8 nerve roots, vascular elements, 32 muscles, and ligaments.
The nerve roots stem from the spinal cord like tree branches through foramen in the vertebrae. Each nerve root transmits signals (nerve impulses) to and from the brain, shoulders, arms, and chest. A vascular system of 4 arteries and veins run through the neck to circulate blood between the brain and the heart. Joints, muscles, and ligaments facilitate movement and serve to stabilize the structure.
Neck mobility is matchless. It is capable of moving the head in many directions: 90 degrees of flexion (forward motion), 90 degrees of extension (backward motion), 180 degrees of rotation (side to side), and almost 120 degrees of tilt to either shoulder.
The causes of neck pain are as varied as the list is long. Consider a few examples:
Injury and Accidents: Whiplash is a common injury sustained during an auto accident. This is typically termed a hyperextension and/or hyperflexion injury because the head is forced to move backward and/or forward rapidly beyond the neck's normal range of motion. The unnatural and forceful movement affects the muscles and ligaments in the neck. Muscles react by tightening and contracting creating muscle fatigue resulting in pain and stiffness.
Growing Older: Degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease are known to affect the spine. Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder causing progressive deterioration of cartilage. The body reacts by forming new bone termed osteophytes (bone spurs) that impact joint motion. Spinal stenosis causes the foramen, small neural passageways, to narrow possibly compressing and entrapping nerve roots. Stenosis may cause neck, shoulder, and arm pain and numbness when these nerves are unable to function normally. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) can cause the intervertebral discs to become less hydrated resulting in decreased disc elasticity and height. Over time, a disc may bulge or herniate causing upper extremity pain, tingling, and numbness.
Everyday Life: Poor posture, obesity, and weak abdominal muscles disrupt the spine's balance often causing the neck to bend forward to compensate. Stress and emotional tension can cause muscles to tighten and contract resulting in pain and stiffness.
Other Disease Processes: Although neck pain is commonly caused by strain, prolonged pain and/or neurologic deficit may be an indication of something more serious. These symptoms should not be ignored. Spinal infection, spinal cord compression, tumor, fracture, and other disorders can occur. If head injury has been sustained, more than likely the neck has been affected too. It is wise to seek medical attention promptly.
Obtaining a proper diagnosis is paramount to determine the best course of treatment. The physician will take the patient's medical history. The oral segment of the examination often includes many questions such as "when did the pain start?" - "what activities preceded the pain?" - "previous treatment" - "does the pain radiate or travel into other body parts?" - "what makes the pain less or greater?" and so on.
A physical examination includes observing the patient's posture, range of motion, and physical condition. Any movement generating pain is carefully noted. The physician will palpate or feel the curvature of the spine, vertebral alignment, and detect muscle spasm. The neurological examination tests the patient's reflexes, muscle strength, detects sensory and/or motor changes, and determines pain distribution.
Radiographic studies may be ordered. An x-ray can reveal narrowing of disc space, fracture, osteophyte formation, and osteoarthritis. Bulging discs and herniations, often responsible for neurologic symptoms, are detected using MRI.
If nerve damage is suspected, the physician may order a special test to measure how quickly nerves conduct impulses. These tests are termed nerve conduction studies and/or electromyography. Typically these studies are not performed immediately because it may take several weeks for nerve impairment to become apparent.
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