Managing Neck and Back Pain
The human skeleton has 206 bones, of which 33 are in the vertebral, or spinal, column that extends from the skull to the pelvis. Problems with these bones, along with muscles, joints, disks and nerves, can cause neck and back pain resulting in a wide range of symptoms. Although uncomfortable, most episodes of back or neck pain are not serious and rarely require surgery.
There are many causes of neck pain. Overuse can result in muscle strain, worn joints may lead to osteoarthritis, and nerve compression due to stiffened or herniated disks and bone spurs could reduce the amount of space for nerves to split off from the spinal cord. Injuries also can cause neck pain, as can certain diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, or cancerous tumors in the spine. Treatment for neck pain should begin as soon as possible to minimize discomfort and prevent further aggravation.
Self-care measures that can help relieve neck pain include taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium or acetaminophen. Alternating heat and cold also may help by using an ice pack to reduce inflammation and then taking a warm shower to relax sore muscles. Lying down occasionally can give the neck a chance to rest from holding up the head. If these treatments do not work, a doctor may prescribe medications, such as muscle relaxants or prescription pain medications, or therapy, including neck exercises and stretching, traction or short-term immobilization.
Back pain usually is due to strained muscles or ligaments, improper or heavy lifting, or a sudden awkward movement. Structural problems, such as a bulging or ruptured disk, arthritis, sciatica, irregular curves in the spine, or osteoporosis, also can cause back pain. Symptoms can range from muscle ache and limited flexibility, to shooting pain and inability to stand. Back pain typically improves in a few weeks with proper attention and home treatment.
Back pain that comes on suddenly most often gets better without any treatment. However, aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be taken to help ease the pain. A muscle relaxant may be prescribed if mild to moderate back pain is not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers. Heat can be applied to reduce muscle spasms or cold packs may be used to reduce swelling and numb deep pain. Physical therapy and exercise can help reduce pain and strengthen back and abdominal muscles. Cortisone injections may temporarily decrease inflammation around nerve roots near the spinal cord.
Alternative treatments are available for both neck and back pain. However, it is important to discuss the benefits and risks of acupuncture, chiropractic and massage with a physician before starting any alternative therapy.
Neck and back pain may be avoided by improving your overall physical condition and practicing good body mechanics. For the neck, adjust the desk and chair so the monitor is at eye level, don’t tuck the phone between your ear and neck when talking, and stretch frequently. For the back, exercise regularly, build muscle strength and flexibility, and maintain a healthy weight.
For more information about neck and back pain, talk with your doctor or call 1-866-884-DOCS (3627) for a free referral to an orthopedist near you.