Neck (cervical) pain is probably in the top five most common diagnoses that physical therapists treat.
While we do see our share of whiplash injuries and pinched nerves, most of the cases are more chronic in nature and come on over the course of months or years.
When I ask patients why they decided to try physical therapy to address their issues, other than pain, one of the main reasons is that they are having a hard time turning their head to one or both sides.
They tend to notice these restrictions the most when trying to check for traffic while driving, when looking over their shoulder while biking, or when just turning to speak to friends or family. While these limitations can run the spectrum from annoying to dangerous, the good news is that it is almost always possible to improve their restrictions.
Most patients with chronic neck pain see their family doctor first. Depending on the patient’s age and other factors, the physician may order x-rays to rule out any significant pathology in the cervical region.
While nearly all patients over the age of 30 will receive a report that they have a little arthritis or degeneration in their neck, these are usually incidental findings and won’t significantly alter the course of treatment.
A quick note on x-ray findings: depending on their age, most people have some degree of “degeneration” in their neck. A medical study from a radiology journal from 2015 had this to say: “Disk degeneration prevalence ranged from 37% of asymptomatic individuals 20 years of age to 96% of those 80 years of age, with a large increase in the prevalence through 50 years.”
Again, those percentages reflect changes seen on x-ray in patients WITHOUT any neck pain. I bring that up to say that just because some degenerative changes are seen on an x-ray, it doesn’t mean a patient is doomed to a life of pain.
If some of this sounds familiar to someone you know, here are some things you can do to improve your ability to both turn your head and have less pain:
I realize that this advice is very basic and obvious, but general physical activity is one of the best ways to make every part of your body more limber. A few 45-60 minutes sessions/week of walking, biking, swimming, pickleball, or yoga is all it takes to improve mobility in just about every part of your body.
See your physical therapist
The older you are (over 50, I’d say) and the more sedentary you are, the higher the likelihood that you need to address some areas adjacent to your neck. We often see weakness and/or stiffness in the mid-back (thoracic region), shoulders, or lumbar spine.
Physical therapists have extensive training in looking at the big picture of how you function as a human and don’t just focus on one specific body area, especially with chronic issues.
Monitor your posture
Neck issues are very common for people who work at a desk most of the day. We also see these issues in factory workers who spend much of the day working at the same job. If you don’t optimize the way your work environment fits your body, anything you try to do to improve your posture and function outside work is an uphill battle.
Your physical therapist can help you with that as well by performing an ergonomic assessment at your office or workplace.