How Chiropractic Care Can Improve Neck Pain
Our neck, also called the cervical spine, begins at the base of the skull and contains seven small vertebrae. Incredibly, the cervical spine supports the full weight of your head, which is, in general, approximately 12 pounds. Because of its flexibility and how much weight it bears, the neck is very susceptible to pain and injury.
The neck’s susceptibility to injury is due in part to biomechanics (how it moves). Activities and events that affect cervical biomechanics include extended sitting, repetitive movement, accidents, falls and blows to the body or head, normal aging, and everyday wear and tear. Neck pain is predictably the result of injury and accidents (most commonly whiplash induced by a car accident) but can also be caused by the following:
- Degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease directly affect the spine.
- Osteoarthritis, a common joint disorder, causes progressive deterioration of cartilage. The body reacts by forming bone spurs that affect joint motion.
- Spinal stenosis causes the small nerve passageways in the vertebrae to narrow, compressing and trapping nerve roots. Stenosis may cause neck, shoulder, and arm pain, in addition to numbness when these nerves are unable to function normally.
- Degenerative disc disease can cause reduction in the elasticity and height of intervertebral discs. Over time, a disc may bulge or herniate, causing tingling, numbness, and pain that runs into the limbs.
- Poor general health, including poor posture, obesity, and weak abdominal muscles, can often disrupt spinal balance, causing the neck to bend forward in order to compensate. Stress and emotional tension can cause muscles to tighten and contract, resulting in pain and stiffness. Postural stress can contribute to chronic neck pain with symptoms extending into the upper back and the arms.
During your visit, your chiropractor will perform exams to locate the source of your pain and will ask questions about your current symptoms and remedies you may have already tried. For example:
- When did the pain start?
- What have you done for your neck pain?
- Does the pain radiate or travel to other parts of your body?
- Does anything seem to make the pain better or worse?
Your chiropractor will also do physical and neurological exams. During your physical exam, the chiropractor will observe your posture, range of motion, and physical condition, noting movement that causes pain. They will also examine your spine, noting its curvature and alignment and feeling for muscle spasms. Finally, your chiropractor will check your shoulders and conduct a neurological exam, testing your reflexes, muscle strength, other nerve changes, and pain spread.
In some instances, your chiropractor might order one of the following tests to diagnose a specific condition. An x-ray can show narrowed disc space, fractures, bone spurs, or arthritis. A computerized axial tomography scan (a CT or CAT scan) or a magnetic resonance imaging test (an MRI) can show bulging discs and herniations. If nerve damage is suspected, your doctor may order an electromyography (an EMG) to measure how quickly your nerves respond.
Keep in mind that chiropractors are conservative care doctors; their scope of practice does not include the use of drugs or surgery. If your chiropractor diagnoses a condition outside of this conservative scope, such as a neck fracture or an indication of disease, he or she will refer you to the appropriate medical physician or specialist. He or she may also ask for permission to inform your family physician of the care you are receiving to ensure chiropractic and medical care are being coordinated.
A neck adjustment (also known as cervical manipulation) is a precise procedure applied to the joints of the neck, usually by hand. A neck adjustment works to not only improve the mobility of the spine but also restore range of motion and increase movement of the adjoining muscles. Patients typically find it easier to turn and tilt the head while experiencing a reduction of pain, soreness, and stiffness.
Your chiropractor will devise a program of care specific to your health concerns and needs, that may combine more than one type of treatment. In addition to manipulation, your treatment plan may include mobilization, massage, rehabilitative exercises, and more.
Research has revealed that chronic neck pain sufferers enrolled in clinical trials reported significant improvement following chiropractic spinal manipulation. As part of the literature review, published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, the researchers reviewed nine previously published trials and found “high-quality evidence” that patients with chronic neck pain showed significant pain-level improvements following spinal manipulation. No trial group was reported as having remained unchanged, and all groups showed positive changes up to 12 weeks post-treatment.