The spine is the main support for the human body and provides protection for the spinal cord. It is comprised of 33 vertebrae that permit you to maintain an upright position as well as bend. There are three regions of the spine: the cervical or neck area, the thoracic or chest area and the lumbar or lower back area. The sacral and coccyx areas make up the bottom of the spine.
About 80% of adults will suffer significant back pain at some time in their lives due to an injury at work, at home or at play. Back pain and medical spine problems can be caused by:
- Mechanical difficulties when you move your spine in a specific manner
- Injuries such as a sprain or fracture
- Conditions such as arthritis or scoliosis
- Infections or tumors
Doctors generally diagnose spine problems by:
- Physical examination
- Diagnostic tests (such as x-rays, bone scan, CAT scan, MRI, arthroscopy, and biopsy)
- Medical History
Conservative forms of treatment will generally be the first line of defense against most forms of back pain. This may include medication to reduce pain, such as aspirin and acetaminophen, or medication to reduce swelling and inflammation, such as ibuprofen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Physical therapy is often effective, with patients practicing exercises to improve flexibility and strength. In addition, lifestyle changes may be recommended, including those that will lead to the maintenance of a healthy body weight.
Neck pain, or a stiff neck, involves discomfort and possibly soreness in the neck. Often it becomes painful to turn the head. The majority of neck pain cases are the result of muscle strain in the neck, often brought on by poor posture, awkward sleep positions or a jarring movement. If the nerves are affected, you may experience tingling, numbness or a weakening of the neck, arm or hand. More serious causes of neck pain include falls, accidents, problems in the spinal canal or vertebrae and fibromyalgia.
In most cases, the neck pain should go away after several days of reduced activity, use of over-the-counter pain relievers and applications of heat and ice. If it is not improving, your doctor can perform an examination of the area to determine whether there is an underlying medical condition causing the discomfort. Seek medical attention immediately if the neck pain is accompanied by a headache and fever, as those symptoms together may indicate a meningitis infection.
During your appointment, your doctor will take a medical history and ask you various questions about the specifics of the neck pain you are feeling. A physical examination of the neck and surrounding area will also take place in order to achieve a diagnosis of the problem. Due to the wide range of causes for neck pain, further testing including X-rays, a CT scan or MRI imaging or a blood test may be required.
Some of the more potentially serious conditions that may affect the neck region (otherwise known as the cervical spine) and be responsible for neck pain are:
Herniated Disc and Degeneration
Intervertebral discs in between the bones of the vertebrae help to cushion the bones and allow for smooth and painless movement. Symptoms can arise when part of the disc material begins to protrude, known as a disc herniation, or when the disc begins to change, known as disc degeneration. These conditions can cause neck pain that also radiates down the arm and weakness or numbness in the shoulder, arm or hand. The pain comes from the affected disc putting pressure on a specific nerve root and determines where the pain is felt. Treatment for a herniated or degenerated disc includes immobilization of the neck, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy or surgery.
Cervical Spine Stenosis
As spinal degeneration occurs naturally with age, bone spurs may form and cause the spinal canal to become smaller. These bone spurs press on the spinal cords or nerve roots and cause symptoms similar to that of a herniated disc, except that the pressure is applied to the entire spinal cord. This condition can also be known as cervical myelopathy. It can cause a loss of control and strength in the arms. Surgery is the only effective treatment in relieving pressure on the spinal cord.
Cervical trauma is a common and treatable condition that usually occurs as a result of falls or motor vehicle accidents. The cervical spine is the area of the spine most likely to be injured in injuries. An MRI or CT scan can help to diagnose the severity and exact location of the injury. Depending on the extent of the injury, anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy and life adjustments are recommended to reduce the risk of long-term complications.
Cervical Vertebral Tumors
Spinal cord tumors are similar to any other type of tumor. Its cause is unknown but can occur as a primary tumor or as a result of the spread of cancer from another area. Cervical vertebral tumors can cause back pain, loss of sensation, muscle weakness and spasms. Like other tumors, these must be treated quickly and effectively so they do not spread to other areas. Corticosteroids can help relieve symptoms but surgery, radiation or chemotherapy may be necessary to remove the tumor.
Cervical deformities can be congenital or a result of trauma, other spine diseases or surgery complications. These deformities occur when the cervical spine curves forward. Cervical deformities can cause neck pain and a reduced range of motion, but can lead to paralysis if it is severe and left untreated. Physical therapy or surgery can help correct cervical deformities.
Spinal infections occur as a result of bacteria or fungi that have traveled to the cervical spine and can occur after surgery or trauma. Infections can include abscesses and lesions and may cause back pain, fever, chills and muscle spasms. Treatment options include intravenous antibiotics or antifungal therapy or surgery.