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What Causes Neck Pain?

Pain located in the neck is a very common condition. It has dozens of possible causes, from very minor to very serious conditions, and is also referred to as cervical pain, since the cervical spinal vertebrae are located in the neck. Even though there are numerous causes for neck pain, these usually fall into one of four categories: injuries, worn joints, disk disorders, and muscle strains.

Muscle strains are a very common cause for pain in many areas of the body, but especially in the back and neck. A strain occurs when a muscle is stretched or torn, whether from a sudden shock or from prolonged misuse or overuse. It is common to refer to strained muscles as “pulled” muscles. In the neck, this can happen due to poor sleeping posture or other relatively minor factors. A strained neck muscle, while painful, can usually be taken care of without seeing a medical professional.

Disorders involving the disks which separate the vertebrae are a common cause of neck pain, particularly for the elderly. In general, these cushioning disks dry out and lose their elasticity as a person ages. This narrows the openings in the spinal column where nerves come out. If pressure is put on these nerves, severe neck pain can develop.

The cervical vertebrae can also become herniated, a condition in which the inner cartilage material of a disk pushes out through a tear in the tough outer covering of the disk. If any nerves are nearby, these can become irritated, apart from the pain resulting from part of the disk being displaced. With treatment, herniated or ruptured disks take just over a month to significantly improve. In these cases, surgery is usually not necessary.

Like all other joints in the body, neck joints experience wear and tear over a person’s lifetime. Osteoarthritis can result, causing neck pain and stiffness as the cartilage becomes worn. There is no known cure for osteoarthritis, which tends to worsen over time, but there are ways to manage it and reduce pain and inflammation.

Injuries such as whiplash can cause severe but temporary neck pain. When the soft tissues of the neck are suddenly stretched beyond their intended limits, mild or severe injuries can result. Treatment typically depends heavily on over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers and/or muscle relaxants, as well as applying ice to the affected areas. Neck pain resulting from whiplash usually subsides within four to six weeks.

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