The common phrase “pain in the neck” has become a cliché because it is used so often to describe someone or something that is a constant irritation. However, neck pain and headaches are more than just irritating. They can be very painful. Physiotherapy is extremely effective in treating headaches which are often linked to dysfunction of the cervical spine.
The neck includes the bones and joints of the cervical spine, the shock-absorbing discs that form cushioning between the cervical vertebrae as well as the muscles and ligaments that attach into the cervical spine.
Neck pain may be felt at the base of the skull and spread across the shoulder on one side and even down the arm. It may also often lead to headaches that may be widespread or focal to one point such as behind the eyes or in the temples. Range of motion may be limited, usually more to one side than the other, making it difficult to drive or look over the shoulder. Neck pain and headaches may be caused by poor posture, normal wear and tear, overuse, injury or illness.
Poor posture is one of the main contributors to neck pain and headaches. The key to correct neck posture is to keep the head in a neutral position and to keep the shoulder blades back and down rather than hunched forwards. Many of us tend to have a forward head posture and rounded shoulders while reading, driving, relaxing on the couch or working at the computer. This places undue stress on the joints and muscles of the cervical spine which leads to pain and dysfunction. Or in some offices the computer may be at a much higher level than the head, causing the individual to look up for extended periods which also causes stress on the cervical spine. Sleeping with your neck on too high or too low a pillow can cause compression of the cervical spine and may lead to neck pain and headaches, as can a mattress that does not support the natural curve of the back.
Trauma to the neck, for example, when a whiplash injury occurs is another common cause of neck pain and headaches. Whiplash is usually associated with motor vehicle accidents, but it may also happen in some other scenarios such as in skiing accidents or falls from significant heights. In severe cases spinal cord injury may occur, requiring emergency care.
Other causes of neck pain are and headaches are:
- Arthritis resulting from wear and tear to the discs and vertebrae in the cervical spine, which can also lead to spinal nerve compression.
- Meningitis – a serious viral or bacterial illness that requires immediate hospitalisation and which causes headaches, fever, stiff neck and sometimes vomiting and aversion to light.
- The flu. This can cause headaches and neck pain without the stiffness.
- Stress and tension can also give rise to what is sometimes called ‘tension’ headaches as well as neck pain.
Treatment for neck pain requires careful diagnosis and physiotherapy treatment depending on the condition. The goal of physiotherapy is to help you return to your prior level of functioning and assist you in living a pain-free life.