Many people experience neck and back discomfort at sometime in their lives. Problems can occur suddenly after an accident or injury, or may occur as the result of a slow, gradual process due to lack of exercise or poor posture. Incorrect posture throws the head forward and puts a tremendous amount of stress on the muscles in the back of the neck and upper shoulders.
Muscles in this position maintain a constant state of contraction, resulting in injury and subsequent discomfort. Poor sleeping habits, poor work habits, and tension can all contribute to this problem. While tension is not often the primary cause of back and neck pain, it can certainly worsen pain and make you more prone to injury.
Also, failure to exercise opposing muscle groups can also result in neck and shoulder pain. The imbalance of muscle strength can cause chronic or sporadic tension and tightness in these areas.
Some other specific conditions that can lead to muscle deterioration and pain may include a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and general lack of muscular tone.
A healthy, pain-free neck also depends on the condition of your upper back. Because the neck and upper back share the same muscles, the strength and flexibility of the shoulders and upper back muscles are important for keeping the neck balanced.
Pain is also generated when muscles go into spasm. While such a spasm may occur as a protective reflex, it intensifies discomfort by reducing circulation and setting up an inflammatory response.
Stress of any kind, physical or emotional, may cause spasms in underexercised muscles. Lastly, pressure or "pinching" of the nerves in the spine can cause severe pain that can radiate (travel) down the back and leg.
While dull aches can be annoying and even ignored, severe pain or pain accompanied by other symptoms may indicate a serious underlying disease that requires medical attention. If you have any of the following symptoms associated with pain in your neck or back, you are urged to seek medical assistance:
- Fever - May indicate an infection.
- Frequent, painful or bloody urination - May indicate a kidney problem.
- Leg pain traveling down to or below the knee - May indicate a possible disc problem.
- Numbness, tingling, weakness or loss of bladder or bowel control - May indicate a nerve or disc problem.
- Persistent pain that hasn't improved and can not be relieved - May indicate a serious back disorder or injury.
If you have any of the symptoms listed above or have other concerns about your neck or back, you are encouraged to consult with a medical provider. Evaluation of your problem may include a discussion and review of your medical history, a physical examination and diagnostic tests.
To be a better health care consumer, you should prepare for your appointment in advance. You may want to make a written, chronological history of your problem with accurate descriptions of your symptoms. You may also want to prepare a list of questions in advance. By letting your provider know you have prepared these, it may help ensure that you have an exchange of communication and that all of your concerns and questions are addressed.
Your provider should let you know the advantages and disadvantages of all recommended tests, procedures and treatments and give you an idea (or prognosis) of outcomes, especially if extensive drug therapy, physical therapy or surgery may be required. If your provider refers you for tests or additional consultation, you should also be aware of the financial obligations you may incur. Talk with the provider's office or your insurance company, if you have coverage, about filing a claim or payment expectations.
Self-care and treatment can be responsibly done under the consultation of a medical provider. The following are some safe and effective methods, but remember, if your back still hurts after a week of self-treatment, seek medical advice.
Application of heat or ice
Apply heat and/or ice in a way that makes you most comfortable. To relieve initial pain, you may want to apply ice packs wrapped in towels for 10 minutes every two hours for the first one or two days. Then you may apply heat or ice. Always make sure you have a cloth of some type between your skin and the ice, to prevent freezing the skin and frostbite. It is not recommended that you lie on an ice pack. Since back sprains and strains don't usually cause much swelling, some people find moist heat, such as a hot shower, tub bath, wet towels, or hot water bottle, to be more effective than ice. Limit heat to 15-20 minutes every few hours. Too much heat can make you feel drained and tired, rather than relaxed.
Massage helps increase the blood flow to your muscles, improves muscle tone and helps your muscles to relax. Classes are often offered for massage training and there are resources such as books and handouts available to teach proper massage technique.
Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin can help reduce pain. Be aware that products such as these can cause stomach irritation for some people. Take all medications in the dosages and time schedules recommended on the label.
Try to lie comfortably in a well-supported bed. The best position for your back is on your side with the knees bent. A pillow between the knees may also help increase comfort. Another good resting position is on your back with a pillow underneath your knees. Lying on your stomach or flat on your back with your legs straight out are not recommended positions.
Once your pain subsides, do the exercises provided by your healthcare provider or visit spineuniverse.com. A bit of initial discomfort is normal, but if you avoid exercise for too long, your muscles will stiffen and weaken and may cause you more problems in the future. If you experience any significant pain, stop immediately and seek medical attention. Gradually increase the amount, intensity and frequency of exercise as tolerated. Do not perform any exercise with pain that is increasing or not improving.
Stress and Tension Management
Techniques, such as progressive muscular relaxation, exhalation breathing, meditation and guided imagery can help create a more relaxed body that is receptive to healing. You might want to seek out a class or book on one of these topics. Soothing music played on a stereo or radio and resting your body and mind may also be beneficial.
Some activities can be helpful in toning and stretching muscles while reducing the possibility of further injury. Swimming, walking, and water walking are recommended. Conversely, some activities can cause problems if done before symptoms are gone and strength, flexibility and conditioning are restored. Avoid tennis, golf, bowling, racquetball, diving, high-impact aerobics, and other activities that combine sudden bending and twisting.
You are not alone if you suffer from back and neck pain and related problems. Restoring your body to optimal conditioning with proper exercise and prevention measures will help ensure an active life. Consultation with a medical provider may be necessary for some individuals.