Is neck pain a common complaint?

In my work as the owner of a physio clinic neck pain is one of the most common complaints that we see. I estimate that it is either second or third on the list of most common conditions, behind low back pain. Sometimes people with neck pain will put up with it for an extended period of time before seeking help with their pain, especially if it is just a niggle and not stopping them from doing the activities they do every day. I find that most people in the community with neck pain will come and seek physio treatment when it stops them from sleeping properly, or when it affects them with more severe pain – for example when the move their neck, sit at their desk, or sometimes if their neck is causing them to suffer headaches. A recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain said that 1 in 2 people will suffer neck pain in their lifetime.

What are the main causes?

The majority of people who seek help from my colleagues and I with neck pain don’t know what caused it. When we first meet them and try to understand what caused their neck pain they will say things like “I slept funny” or “I turned the wrong way in bed”. Many people think their neck pain came on from doing an unusual movement which strained their neck. In my experience the main causes of many people’s neck pain which simply comes on for no reason comes down to 2 factors – prolonged postures, and repetitive movements. Take the person who works at a desk. They may sit in one, or a couple of positions for 8 to 10 hours a day. Their neck muscles get stiff, and when their muscles get stiff it can affect how well their neck moves. I see lots of people who work in jobs where they are driving long distances- cab drivers, truck drivers and delivery drivers. These people develop stiff necks from sitting with their arms holding the wheel and moving their necks in the same ways repetitively. But the majority of neck pain sufferers I look after sit at a desk for their work, and they are in one position for too long. They are not moving often enough. If they are not exercising regularly and their muscles are weak this can also contribute to them developing neck pain.

What does the treatment involve?

When physios treat a person with neck pain there are many ways to help them. We initially try and understand what is causing the person to have neck pain when we interview them, and we ask a series of questions to make sure their pain isn’t coming from something more severe. If we suspect their problem may be something more serious we will generally ask them to see a GP and have specific tests done before we treat them. Most people who are seeking treatment won’t have a severe problem behind their neck pain. Physios will do specific tests to work out the nature of the person’s neck problem. They may have tight muscles, stiff joints, sensitive nerves, or a combination of those problems. When we do treatment with someone with neck pain the treatment usually consists of some hands on (manual) therapy so settle down the pain in the muscles or joints, advice on posture and movement to help reassure and give the person confidence that their neck pain will get better, and exercises to improve the movement of their neck and the strength of the muscles which move and support the neck – especially in the back of the neck, the upper back and the shoulders. Many people who suffer neck pain also find benefit in lifting light weights at the gym, or doing active rehabilitation exercises, for instance, clinical pilates. It is important to understand what movements, postures and activities are making a person’s neck pain worse, as changing the habits and behaviours leading to the neck pain coming on can stop it from returning.