Neck Pain Explained, And How to Fix It

Neck pain sucks. Learn what causes it and how to fix it with information and advice from STACK Expert Mo Skelton.

Neck Pain

Neck pain can not only keep you out of the game, it can be so painful that just turning your head or lifting your arm hurts too much. Doing your regular workout routine is unthinkable under these circumstances. To keep yourself from being sidelined, it's important to understand the different types of neck pain and how to prevent and treat them.

Types of Neck Pain and How to Fix It

Herniated Disc

A herniated disc is usually a repetitive stress injury, meaning that repeatedly placing stress on the disc in a harmful way eventually causes it to give way and tear. Excessive repeated forward bending of the neck and heavy lifting with improper positioning of the neck are two of the main causes.

When the outer disc tissue, similar to a ligament, is torn, the inner tissue, which is more gelatinous, presses on the spinal cord or a nerve root, causing neck pain, arm pain, weakness and numbness.

When a disc is significantly herniated, there is no quick fix. Even small movements, such as turning and looking down, are painful from the neck down the arm. Sneezing is unbearable. Sleep is nearly impossible. Don't even think about playing football or doing a mobility workout. With this injury, "working out" is putting on a shirt.

Massage by a licensed massage therapist, traction, dry needling, anti-inflammatory medication and steroids are all elements in the process of correcting the acute phase of herniated disc pain.

Crick in the Neck

A "crick," or impinged facet, is when the joint is inflamed, either from stress, poor posture or an awkward sleep position.

With a crick in the neck, it is difficult to turn the head to one side. The problem is usually an impinged facet joint, the bony connection between the vertebrae above and below. This joint is enclosed in a capsule. When your neck pops, the facet joint undergoes a quick pressure change with a release of endogenous opiates and an almost immediate release of pressure, improved movement and a euphoric feeling.

Many times a "quick fix" for a crick in the neck is skilled mobilization to unlock the joint—moving rather than stretching it—by a therapist or chiropractor. Often the mobilization is away from the site of pain. Studies have shown a reduction in neck pain by mobilizing the middle spine.

Postural Stress

Postural stress is exaggerated by keeping your head down, your hands in front and your upper back in a constant stretch. Amateur body builders encourage it by focusing their energy in the weight room only on the "mirror muscles" (the pecs, anterior delts, biceps and abs) without balancing the work on the posterior chain.

Musculature on the front side of the body has the potential to pull the neck forward. Overtraining the pecs and anterior deltoids, and spending inordinate amounts of time on a phone or computer, looking down, places negative stress on the neck. If you have to be on a computer a lot, make sure your desk and chair are at a good height so you're not hunched over.

Also try stretching.

Pec Major

  • Stand facing a squat rack.
  • Raise your arms to your sides above shoulder height and grasp the rack (like your arms were making a Y shape).
  • Lean your body forward into the rack until you feel a stretch in your pecs.

Pec Minor Self Mobilization

  • Lie with your stomach on the ground and position a tennis ball in the center of your pec.
  • Apply downward pressure and roll in circular movements.

Anterior Shoulder

  • Position your arms out to your sides with your upper arms parallel to the ground and your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • Place your forearms on a door frame or squat rack and lean forward until you feel a stretch at the front of your shoulders.

Stinger

A stinger is generally an overstretch of the muscles caused by trauma, with a sudden loss of sensation. The result is an inflamed local response at the muscles, joints and nerves of the neck.

A stinger was long ago deemed a shoulder injury. Reports of getting hit in the top of the shoulder and then experiencing numbness down the hand, which is common with this injury, made it seem logical that the problem originated in the shoulder. In reality, the injury is a sudden severe stretch of the neck, with the nerve roots coming out of the neck into a bundle called the brachial plexus. When these nerves are overly stretched, they give the sensation of a "dead arm."

Exercises after Treatment

Once the injury has stabilized, it's OK to start exercising to strengthen the muscles and begin training again. Try isometric exercises that contract the muscles without moving the neck.

To strengthen the posterior musculature, focus on technique and managing your spine in neutral with:

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: STRETCHING | INJURY | STRESS