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Physiotherapy for Neck Pain

Did you know that physiotherapy for neck pain is the single most effective remedy for finding sustainable relief?

Nearly all ‘physiotherapy for neck pain’ programmes involve gentle and consistent treatments which can reduce pain, discomfort and stiffness – often to the point where you can resume day-to-day activities normally and even engage in exercises to improve neck strength, flexibility and mobility.

In understanding neck pain, it’s helpful to familiarise yourself with a little bit of anatomy.

Our neck supports and manoeuvres our heavy head, and it’s made of seven vertebral bones, and shock-absorbing intra-vertebral discs that permit flexion and extension. The spinal cord runs through a channel within the vertebrae. At the back of the neck, at each level, is a pair of facet joints (which allow rotation of the neck), and a pair of nerve roots, which exits the spinal cord via holes called foraminae. We have eight pairs of cervical nerve roots which innervate the arms, the top of the shoulders, the neck and the back of the head.

cervical spine anatomy

Neck pain symptoms

  • It’s very common to experience pain in your neck, but it’s also possible to experience pain referred from your neck to your head, the top of your shoulder, down your arm, and even into your hand. Some people may feel pain behind their eye, or into their ear. Neck pain can also frustrate restful sleep.
  • If there is irritation of one of the nerve roots exiting the neck, you might feel ‘pins and needles’, numbness, or pain in your arm or hand. Sometimes the arm may also feel weak.
  • You may find that it’s difficult to turn your neck, or the neck feels very stiff first thing in the morning. Sometimes it can be awkward to look over your shoulder when driving a car, or when turning to look at a person speaking to you.
  • Muscles spasm sometimes accompanies neck pain, and many people describe experiencing hearing clunking or grating noises coming from the neck. This sound thankfully isn’t a worrying sign; it’s typically generated by the joints in the neck, or soft tissues moving over each other.
  • Occasionally dizziness can accompany neck pain, which may be caused by a temporary pinching of the small arteries at the back of the neck, which might occur in an older person (e.g. when leaning their head back at the hairdresser’s).
man with neck pain

What causes neck pain?

Thankfully most neck pain isn’t sinister, or a sign that something serious is going on.

Trauma

If you’ve developed a sore, stiff neck as a result of a road traffic accident (e.g. being a passenger in a vehicle that was shunted from behind), you might be experiencing whiplash.

Sometimes this pain is delayed, and may come on a few days or even weeks later. We can help with a proper assessment, and the physio you need to help you make a full recovery.

Stressful posture

Often neck pain will arrive if you’ve been holding you head in a prolonged posture (e.g. when you’ve been staring down over your laptop when working from home).

Sometimes neck pain comes on from sleeping in awkward posture (often experienced on a overnight flight in economy class), or a minor twisting injury (e.g. when pulling up a heavy root whilst gardening). Usually this kind of neck pain resolves over a day or two, but if it’s persisting, we can help.

Osteoarthritis in the neck

Osteoarthritis (aka ‘wear and tear’) is also known as Cervical Spondylosis.

The normal aging process of the neck can lead to loss of height and loss of shock absorption of the intervertebral discs, which leads to the neck becoming stiffer. The facet joints at the back of the neck may wear, and small ‘osteophytes’ (bony spurs) may form on the discs or joints, which can narrow the foraminal openings where the cervical nerve roots leave the spinal cord.

Cervical stenosis

Sometimes the wear and tear process narrows the spinal canal, compressing the spinal cord, and when this process gives rise to symptoms, it’s known as spinal, or cervical stenosis. Cervical stenosis can present with numbness, tingling, weakness or a clumsy feeling your arm or leg, and when sometimes it can also affect balance and walking as well as bladder or bowel function. This process is also known as myelopathy.

Cervical disc herniation (aka ‘slipped disc’) and radiculopathy.

Many people have a herniated (bulging) disc in their neck, which doesn’t cause them any symptoms at all. Sometimes, however, the disc may create pressure and irritation of one or more of the cervical nerve roots that supply the arm and hand. If this has happened to you, you might be experiencing an unpleasant pain, which can be aching, shooting, or tingly, extending into your shoulder, arm, or even your hand.

mri scan image of cervical disc herniation

Physiotherapy for neck pain is typically given to individuals who are looking to:

  • Reduce pain, discomfort and stiffness in and/or around the neck
  • Gradually get back the complete range of motion
  • Develop better strength, flexibility and mobility within the neck and its surrounding musculature
  • Come up with ways to avoid neck pain or discomfort from occurring again

Even if neck pain cannot be completely eliminated – such as more serious cases where surgery may be required – any kind of physical therapy or ‘physiotherapy for neck pain’ programme can greatly improve neck posture, mobility and daily functioning.

There are generally two forms of physiotherapy for neck pain:

Active physiotherapy, where the patient is required to move their body in a specific way through stretches and exercises. This improves the neck’s strength and flexibility, which means it becomes less painful and susceptible to injuries. As a bonus, posture improves and the cervical spine also endures far less stress.

Passive physiotherapy, where specific treatments are applied without any effort or movement from the patient. This could be anything from ice packs and heat therapy to ultrasound, electrotherapy, massage therapy and others. The general goal here is to reduce pain and swelling as much as possible.

Who is an ideal candidate for physiotherapy for neck pain?

Physical therapy for the neck may be ideal in a number of cases, for example:

  • Injury recovery – Injuries such as those sustained during sport, physical activity or, say, a car accident, can damage the soft tissues and joints in the neck. This results in pain accompanied by stiffness and a limited range of motion which can last weeks or even longer. Physiotherapy for neck pain can not only reduce the pain and discomfort but also restore the neck’s normal movement patterns and especially the range of motion.
  • Surgery recovery – Following surgery, some patients experience a fair amount of pain and stiffness for weeks, and often many months. This can affect muscles around the neck and, to some degree, even those in the upper back and spine. Physical therapy can help to gradually (and safely) reduce stiffness, restore normal range of motion faster, and even guard against painful spasms as the muscles are going through a reconditioning phase.
  • Unknown chronic pain – Many patients experience episodes of lingering or recurring neck pain where the exact cause or mechanism of pain can be hard to establish. In this case, physiotherapy for neck pain can help improve the neck muscles’ strength, helping it to support the cervical spine, which means it will be more resistant to pain and discomfort now as well as in the future.

Any kind of neck pain, stiffness or discomfort should not be taken lightly – book an appointment with a qualified physiotherapist today.

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