Neck pain may be a symptom of an underlying condition

By: Skip Hofstrand, M.D., Pine Journal
The stressors of everyday life – running late, rush hour traffic, a new job, a new house, paying the bills, worries about your kids, parents or spouse – can have a physical as well an emotional impact on our lives. Stress can cause you to tense your muscles and can become, quite literally, a pain in the neck.

Muscle strain and tension often cause neck and shoulder pain. The problem often originates from overuse – for instance, if you sit at a computer for hours each day or overdo it during exercise. Sometimes pain comes after you’ve slept in an awkward position.

But, pain isn’t always tension related. Injury from falling or a car accident can also result in a sprain or strain to the neck.

In addition, a number of medical conditions can cause pain to the neck and shoulder area. Some of these include: heart attack, degenerative arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, gallbladder disease, meningitis, inflammation under the diaphragm, abnormal lung conditions and issues with the spinal cord, such as a herniated disk or tumor. Certain conditions associated with growing older such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease can directly affect the cervical spine and cause pain.

Symptoms and type of pain felt in the neck and shoulders can vary depending on the cause. Using specific descriptions when talking to your doctor can help him or her accurately diagnose the underlying cause of your pain.

For instance, pain can be sharp, intense, dull, burning, radiating, stabbing or crampy. It may get worse at certain times of the day or after certain activities. It may be on both sides of the neck or just one. Other symptoms that might accompany pain include:

• Weakness. This can indicate injury to the nerves.

• Decreased range of motion. It may be difficult to turn your head, lift your shoulders or bend your neck to look down at your feet.

• Numbness. You may feel as if your fingers are tingling or that your arm has “fallen asleep.” This could indicate nerves that are pinched or injured.

• Dizziness, which may be accompanied by a headache, nausea, vomiting and blurred vision.

• Swelling. Can be caused by acute injury, such as a broken bone. Localized swelling can be a symptom of bursitis.

• Lack of circulation. If your arm or hand feels cool, it may be that you have arteries or veins that are injured or blocked.

• Fever. Could indicate an infection.

• Color changes to the skin. A lack of color could suggest injury to your arteries or veins. Redness is a sign of infection or inflammation. Bruising indicates injury to the area from a fall or other accident.

Minor injuries and stress can often be treated successfully at home with rest, ice, elevation and pain control.

• Rest: Use the injured area as little as possible for two or three days to allow it time to heal. After that, gradually resume normal activities to exercise the area and speed recovery.

• Ice and heat: Ice the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Do not apply ice directly to the skin. If you suspect or know you have a muscle injury, it may respond better to heat. Apply a heating pad to the area for 15 to 20 minutes.

• Elevation: Raise the injured area above your heart. This helps decrease swelling and reduces pain.

• Pain control: Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can help relieve pain and swelling.

If home treatment does not improve your symptoms within a few days or if your symptoms worsen, contact your doctor to access treatment options.

If, at any point, you develop a high fever (over 102.5 F), severe headache, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light or extreme sweating seek medical attention immediately. These could be symptoms of a serious condition.

According to the National Institute of Health, back pain, which includes pain in the neck and shoulders, is an issue for 8 out of 10 Americans. It’s nothing to take lightly. Treatment methods vary, depending on the cause of your pain, so it’s important to identify source of your problem. At-home treatment is often effective for minor injury or pain. However, if you don’t know the cause of your pain or if it gets worse over time, you should contact your physician to obtain a diagnosis and course of treatment based on your specific situation.

Dr. Hofstrand is certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine and works at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.