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Anatomy of the Neck and Causes of Neck Pain
By Brianne Baird
August 12, 2019
Category: Uncategorized
Tags: acute pain   chronic pain   neck pain  

Neck pain is slightly more common in women, but most people experience some form of neck pain at some point in their life. There are many causes of neck pain, and generally they can be separated into acute and chronic causes.

  1. Acute: if the pain is suddenly occurs and lasts less than three months, then it is considered acute. Acute neck pain can be caused by facet syndrome, acute muscle strain or traumatic injury like whiplash.
  2. Chronic: if the pain persists more than three months, it is termed chronic neck pain. This pain can be from multiple sources, but is often due to facet joint irritation, discs, ligaments and muscular sources.

Let’s explore in detail some of the most common causes of neck pain:


Overuse of the muscles and falling asleep in awkward positions for extended periods of time often produce muscle strains. The neck muscles located in the back of the neck become tense. When the neck muscles are continuously or frequently strained, a chronic pain syndrome can develop.

Traumatic Injury

A well-known cause of neck pain, referred to as whiplash, occurs after motor vehicle accidents, specifically in rear-end collisions. This hyperextension of the neck often results in stretching of the soft tissues of the neck, producing local inflammation, muscle tension and ligament strain. When ligaments and tendons become inflamed or damaged, they can cause persistent pain that intensifies with particular movements. In addition to neck muscle strains, the neck facet joints are also commonly involved in painful neck conditions.

Spinal Stenosis

Another frequent cause of neck pain is spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the central spinal canal. This narrowing can compress the spinal cord and surrounding nerves roots. This compression can cause cramping pain, shooting pain, or numbness in the legs, back, neck, shoulders or arms. The symptoms typically depend on the area of the spine that is affected. In cervical spinal stenosis, the upper extremities and shoulders are most commonly affected.

Depression, anxiety, and stress tend to exacerbate chronic pain syndromes. Worsening neck pain is a common manifestation of these emotional stressors.

Disc Disease

Disc disease is one of the most common causes of neck pain and one of the most common reasons for surgery. Disc disease may be acute, resulting from trauma, or more commonly, chronic pain caused by degeneration. Degenerative disc disease is a process that is due to a thinning and dehydration of the discs over time that can lead to compression of other nearby structures.

Anatomy and Treatment

Understanding the neck’s anatomy is critical for properly diagnosing and treating the source of pain. The anatomy and physiological function of the neck is the key in evaluating a person with neck pain. The bony spine is positioned so that individual vertebrae (bones of the spine) provide a flexible support structure while also protecting the spinal cord.

Separating each individual vertebrae are discs that act as cushions to minimize the impact that the cervical spinal column receives. Since the discs are designed to be soft and provide support, they have a tendency to herniate posterior (collapse backwards) through ligaments and cause irritation to adjacent nerves, or even to the spinal cord.

Minimally-invasive procedures are numerous and can be the most helpful to control pain and improve daily functioning. In recent years, there has been an abundance of research surrounding non-surgical procedures and their effectiveness in treating neck pain.

If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms or have chronic pain from one of the conditions above, schedule an appointment with us so you can get out of pain and back to your life!