What a Pain in the Neck!
On a day hike in November, when I was carrying less than 10 pounds on my back, I hurt my neck somehow. What a wimp, right? There was no blinding flash of pain but the next day I couldn’t move my neck from side to side and attempting to do so hurt a lot. Trying to turn my head back when changing lanes while driving was particularly excruciating but I thought it would pass. I even went to the chiropractor to get things popped back into place, a fix that usually works for me. Six weeks later, nothing had improved so I finally went to the doctor on Jason’s urging.
Although what transpired in the months following that visit will no doubt bore many of you, for some, my experience might explain all the mysteries of life… or some of its agonies at the very least. I am an inquisitive person and I gathered a lot of information on the topic of neck pain by constantly asking questions of any medical professional I came in contact with. You might as well benefit from that tiresome habit.
Part 1: Pill Cocktails
As I already mentioned, after about six weeks of experiencing severe neck pain with no improvement, Jason convinced me to go to the doctor. My doctor x-rayed my neck to make sure I didn’t have any fractures or compressed vertebrae. The x-ray showed nothing amiss so he concluded that my injury was limited to my muscles. He believed that I had hurt a muscle just enough that the surrounding muscles had spasmed, i.e. contracted, to protect the damaged area. This sounds nice and helpful in theory but it doesn’t feel good, especially when it becomes everlasting. My doc prescribed three days of muscle relaxants to ease my neck’s grasp and 10 days of a strong anti-inflammatory to bring down the swelling. He also recommended I heat the area in the morning and ice it at night. Additionally, physical therapy was suggested as a possible aid. My pill cocktail definitely made a big difference but I was still hurting after 10 days, so I willingly signed up for the awkward discomfort of physical therapy.
- Many new muscle relaxants on the market now are not habit forming. They aren’t the Somas you remember your wild friends enjoying as a teenager.
- Even if you have stomach issues like gastritis, novel anti-inflammatories exist that won’t irritate your delicate linings.
- When your back pops while you are being squished together during chiropractic adjustments, the pops are air escaping from facet joints.
Part 2: My PT Prognosis
My physical therapist had a slightly different opinion of my situation than my doctor. He said that women between the ages of 35 and 50 commonly suffer from neck injuries caused by decades of bad posture and weak neck muscles. He thought my problems, which practically occurred spontaneously, were basically an overdue tantrum brought about by a long history of maltreatment. He agreed that muscle spasms (tightened muscles) were the main reason for my pain but believed joint damage, not just a muscle injury, was involved. In his opinion, my muscles were protecting my joints rather than each other… silly chivalrous muscles.
- Most people have flimsy necks, especially women, unless they weightlift. However, lifting causes its own brand of neck injuries.
- Neck injuries like mine are quite common in women once they reach their mid-thirties.
- Posture-related issues happen with women in part because they don’t want to look like they are sticking out their chest; they hunch instead. If you’ve got it ladies, flaunt it or you will hurt it.
- Neck joints can be injured by something as simple as lifting a heavy object over your head or sleeping funny.
- Neck injuries don’t usually go away on their own. If they are not treated, they will typically become chronic and behave very unpredictably. If you’ve had one for a long time, it is much harder, almost impossible, to treat.
- This type of injury usually gets better in 2-4 weeks with aggressive treatment. If it doesn’t, it might be time to consider an epidural or cortisone injection. Injections won’t fix the issue but they will make it easier to move the joints, which is what they need.
- Correct neck posture is a straight back with shoulders back and down. Your head should be in line with your shoulders not hunched forward. Your chin should not be tilted up.
- Computer screens and books should be held at eye level. This keeps you neck in a satisfactory position.
- Pain at the base of the skull is muscle related typically while pain along the spine is usually caused by joints.
- Those popping noises, like Rice Krispies, your neck makes after visiting the physical therapist or chiropractor? They’re caused by a bit of inflammation created from overworking the area. When the tissues swell, there isn’t anywhere for the swelling to go because everything is so tight.
Part 3: Bandages and Blisters
After my first physical therapy visit, and all the manual side-to-side rotating my therapist did that hurt like hell, I felt wonderful the rest of the day. That wonderfulness wore off though and, a couple days later, I felt pretty sore.
Along with moving my neck around excruciatingly, on that first visit my PT put some kinesiology tape on my back and neck. This tape is used to train muscles to maintain correct posture and stretch them in helpful ways. As instructed, I left these bandages on until they started falling off, which took a few days, even though they were hurting me. When I did take them off, I discovered that I had some serious blistering going on, which explained the pain. My physical therapist thought this was caused by an allergic reaction to the adhesives used in the tape, which is not a common occurrence with kinesiology tape but an occasional one.
Part 4: Vices and Virtues
Have you ever had your head in a vice? I have, only a physical therapist calls it a cervical traction device. My neck was stretched a few times in such a contraption. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as it seems like a vice should be but it didn’t miraculously fix my problems either.
Part 5: Zapped
My therapy mishaps didn’t end with the bandage blisters. My PT used an electrode stimulator on numerous visits but on one occasion it really killed. The electricity didn’t feel constant but seemed to spike up and down. I can tolerate a surprising amount of pain, which isn’t always a good thing- just ask my ankle. So, I toughed out the jolts. When I got home, I was astonished to find that my neck had huge blistering burns on it.
My physical therapist had never had that happen with a patient before but thought the oils in the lotion he used on me before the stimulator probably changed the conductivity of my skin. Why do I always have to be the skin weirdo? Two layers of my skin were completely burned off and my neck is still red in the scalded spots. Hopefully, that redness goes away at some point.
Part 6: Gummed
During one of my visits, one of the physical therapists played with my joints and tried to get them to release. This was a test to see if any joints were out of place. Her conclusion? The joints weren’t out, the joint capsules were just gummed up. Nothing was blocking the movement of my neck except gunk. Yup, as expected, neck gunk is the root of all evil.
Part 7: Stabbed
After I’d been burned and blistered by different treatments gone awry, my physical therapist said he was almost afraid to touch my skin. But that didn’t stop him from having one of his associates stab me with needles. When a muscle has been constricted for an extended period of time, its chemistry changes and it can’t relax. Micro-thin needles, similar to acupuncture needles, can be driven into these muscles to change their contracted chemistry and loosen them. There is a connection between how much a needle makes a patient twitch and how much tension is in her muscles. When needles were plunged into my traps, I quaked like a fish in the Sahara. Particularly, my right side entertained everyone in the facility with its convulsing. Thrashing around uncontrollably is a strange sensation and it does make you a bit sore.
Part 8: Death
With a death in my family, my neck got much worse. My PT concluded that there is a stress component to my problems, supporting the “last straw” theory.
- Sleep is a factor in chronic neck pain. Not getting enough sleep will make it worse.
- That lump you sleep on, AKA pillow, can add to chronic neck pain. A cervical pillow might help.
Part 9: Strength and Stretching
After months of therapy, my PT decided I was ready to be cut loose… and hopefully stay loose. My neck was still having good days and bad days but its needs were finally few: movement and muscle. My perpetual treatment plan involves performing daily exercises to strengthen my neck muscles and hourly stretching to keep my joints content. The thing about exercise is that it stops working when you stop doing it so I will have to do neck workouts from now until forever. Neck rotations every hour of every day, especially when I’m working at a desk or sitting in class, will also have to become a lasting habit.
- Muscle strength is slow to build so months of daily training are needed before the impact on chronic pain can be assessed.
- When an area hurts, not moving it is a common defense mechanism. This actually makes joint issues worse. Joints want motion. When they hurt, we need to ignore our instincts and move them like crazy. This is especially important with persistent joint issues.
- There isn’t really a motion that’s bad for your neck to do. It’s designed to do everything.
- A kinked neck is a joint issue. What should you do for it? Move your neck like crazy. (Stop being such a baby and just do it!)
- A pinched neck is caused by a problem with the same joints that cause kinks, the facet joints.
Part 10: Post PT
I’m four months into my perpetual plan now and the strength and stretching exercises do seem to be helping. My head stem hasn’t seized up again. It’s whinier than a teenager in a dead zone sometimes but I’m tough enough to deal with that drama. Go forth neck and be tolerable!