Lower Neck Pain
Establishing the cause of lower neck pain is of vital importance in order to remove or ameliorate the pain. Lower neck pain, often referred to as cervicalgia, can be obstructive to conducting simple, everyday, activities and may lead to inactivity and chronic debilitation. It may be something as basic as poor posture that is the cause, or it could be due to a structural defect which needs correcting before quality of life returns. Often, lower neck pain can cause referred arm pain, head pain, and shoulder pain, as well as being a result itself of pain referred from elsewhere.
Lower neck pain is frequently caused by:
- Poor Posture
- Muscle Strains
- Osteoarthritis in the Neck
- Acute Trauma
- The Thyroid Gland
Poor Posture and low neck pain
Most commonly , lower neck pain will be the result of something simple, such as poor posture, rather than a serious medical issue. Common triggers are sitting at a desk for long periods in an unsuitable chair, with the keyboard too close or too far away, or leaning to one side whilst touch-typing. Even away from work, slouching in front of the television, hunching over a model train-set, or playing board games with the kids can put strains on the body that result in vertebral compression and lower neck pain. This may be felt as acute pain, or, if the action is repeated, chronic pain.
Muscle Strain and low neck pain
Working out at the gym or carrying heavy bags of shopping home may also trigger lower neck pain. This is due to muscle strains, where the muscles in the neck are overtaxed or overstretched. This can often happen when the time has not been taken to warm up before strenuous activity. Ensuring adequate warm-up time can get the blood flowing freely into the muscles and aid the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to keep them functioning optimally.
Even basic actions like reading in bed may cause lower neck pain, especially if the reader then falls asleep in an awkward position. Grinding the teeth whilst asleep may also trigger lower neck and jaw pain. Sometimes cervicalgia is a result of tension in the neck from stress, and may be related to headache and neck pain, or pain elsewhere in the body.
It is also possible that lower neck pain is being caused by shoulder impingement and may be relieved by addressing the problem with the shoulder rather than concentrating on the neck area itself (Gorski, 2003). This is due to inflammation in the scapula causing referred pain in the lower neck and may be avoided by refraining from positioning the arm forward at an elevation greater than 90 degrees.
Osteoarthritis in the Neck
Wear and tear of the joints often occurs with age, whereby the soft tissues are crushed or worn away reducing the cushioning between vertebrae. This means that conditions such as spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis may occur, resulting in pinched nerves and blood vessels, and inflammation. The cervical area is highly concentrated in terms of blood vessels and nerves and can often produce referred pain if nerve roots become inflamed or compressed.
The growth of bone spurs in the neck (osteophytes) can put more pressure on the neck joints and structures leading to chronic neck pain. This may occur due to a malfunction of calcium metabolism, or as a result of cartilage degeneration, where the body attempts to flatten out the joint so as to reduce surface pressure.
Injuries, such as whiplash, can cause acute trauma to the neck, causing lower neck pain. This is exacerbated if the structures are already weak, or dysfunctional through wear and tear. Whiplash may occur in car collisions, falls, or injuries from contact sports and other exercise. Often the pain is not felt immediately but becomes apparent after twenty-four hours or so. It may be a result of acute inflammation, or could indicate more long-term damage, including muscle rips and tears, or compacting of the connective tissues and joints in the lower cervical spine.
Meningitis and other Infections
If the lower neck pain is making it difficult to touch the chin to the chest and is acute in nature then it is important to seek medical attention as it may be a sign of meningitis. This is a an infection of the meninges, the membranes surrounding the spinal cord, and can lead to serious complications if untreated. Seek professional heath care if a fever and rash are present as these are further signs of infection.
Other infections, such as tooth abscesses and salivary gland problems, can cause jaw pain, upper neck pain, and lower neck pain. If the jawline only is swollen then this may indicate a problem specific to the mouth and jaw area. However, if there are signs of inflammation in the lymph nodes around the neck then this may demonstrate a more systemic infection. In either case the inflammation warrants medical investigation.
The Thyroid Gland
As the thyroid gland sits around the oesophagus in the lower neck it is possible that cervicalgia can be connected to problems with this gland, especially if the patient is having difficulty swallowing and has noticed a change in the tone of voice (Anders, 1998). If the neck is swollen, and the patient is suffering fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, and potentially weight management issues then the thyroid may have become dysfunctional.
Simple blood tests can be conducted to measure the levels of thyroid hormones in the body and also antibodies to thyroid hormones which would indicate an autoimmune disorder such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which can also cause swelling (goitre) and lower neck pain.
Lower Neck Pain Treatment
Always, treatments vary depending on the cause of the cervicalgia (lower neck pain). NSAIDs, analgesics, and alternative anti-inflammatories and pain-relievers can be of assistance. If the problem is one of posture then seeing a specialist, like an ergonomist, may be helpful. Conducting strengthening exercises, after discussing the situation with the doctor can help prevent the lower neck pain from occurring again, as may chiropractic treatment or consulting with an osteopath. Some people also find relief from therapeutic massage, especially when using essential oils, if the problem is stress-related.
Lower neck pain has numerous causes, whether chronic or acute, and can be a result of structural, nervous, vascular, lymphatic, or endocrine dysfunction. Many neck pain treatment options are available and should be discussed with a qualified physician so as to achieve an effective solution.
Gorski, J.M., Schwartz, L.H., (2003), Shoulder Impingement Presenting as Neck Pain, The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (American), Vol.85, pp.635-638.
Anders, H.J., (1998), Compression syndromes caused by substernal goitres, Postgrad Med J, Vol.74, No.872, pp.327-9.