Now before I get started, it’s important to know that the experience of neck pain is extremely common. It’s the second most common area of musculoskeletal pain. Around 50% of people will experience it at some point in their life. Just like lower back pain, neck pain can appear episodically, fluctuate in severity and persist for long periods. The pain can be felt as a dull ache, a sharp/stabbing pain, or a combination of these. What’s more, is that your neck pain can sometimes refer to other areas around the shoulder and upper back. This referred pain can at times feel like an ache or even a burning/tingling/shooting like sensation. A common error people make is they mistake The Victim for The Criminal.
- The Victim being the arm/shoulder/upper back pain
- The Criminal being the neck.
So, what CAUSES neck pain?
Believe it or not, this is a tricky question to answer. The topic of causation and pain are both extremely complex. Rather than diving headfirst into some dense human physiology, biophysics, neuroscience and philosophical science… I’ll keep it simple and reframe the question.
Rather, what CONTRIBUTES to neck pain?
This is a far easier question to answer. This is because there is rarely one specific thing that is solely to blame for your neck pain. Your pain is likely being felt due to several contributing factors. Yep, that’s right… it’s not solely your pillows’ or your postures’ fault!
Generally, there can be a mechanical component (neck joints), a nervous tissue component (nerve irritation or compression) or a combination of both. Like everything that exists in the world, our body’s hard and soft tissues have specific loading capacities. When these are exceeded we injure something which then triggers the body’s inflammatory response. Both the injured tissue and the subsequent inflammation can contribute to your pain. Now it’s important to know that some inflammation is good as it is your body’s natural process of healing. However, just like much of the good things in life, you can have too much of a good thing! Excessive inflammation can build up the pressure felt in your neck and can sensitise some of the surrounding nerves. This can spark that referral to your shoulder or that burning sensation down your arm.
This inflammatory response can be triggered by irritating a structure in your neck. This means there doesn’t necessarily need to be an “injury” at play. While generally people with neck pain present with excessive inflammation, people can experience neck pain without inflammation present at all. So what’s contributing to the pain in these situations? I guess it’s time for a really important concept… 100% of your pain is generated by your nervous system, not by your neck – by the way you could insert any bodily structure here!
Now, you may be feeling your pain in your neck, but in reality, your spinal cord and brain pick up threat signals being sent by nerves in the neck and translate them as something that requires action. That action may be to rest, to stretch the neck muscles or any other host of actions to reduce your pain. Have a read of this to see what actions you can take to reduce your neck pain.
To sum it all up…
- Neck pain can arise from mechanical factors, nervous tissue irritation or a combination of these.
- Your pain is likely not being caused by one single thing but rather a bunch of contributing factors.
- Your neck pain is generated by your nervous system, not your neck.
- The body’s inflammatory response is designed to heal you and is good for you in the short term
- This inflammatory response can sensitise your nervous system and can increase the pressure felt in your neck.