Spinal Problems Neck Pain

Neck pain has many possible causes, ranging from a minor muscle pull to a serious spinal cord injury. Some of the main causes of neck pain are degeneration of the spine due to the natural aging process, soft tissue injury and nerve compression.

Cervical Spine Degeneration

Many spinal problems can be attributed to the natural wear and tear of age. As intervertebral discs of the spine age, they naturally degenerate and lose water content. As the discs dry out and weaken, the disc space loses height, causing increased pressure on the spinal facet joints. The increased pressure can cause the joints to degenerate and develop spinal problems such as osteoarthritis (also called “cervical spondylosis”).

Two other common things that happen in the cervical spine due to degeneration are herniated (or “bulging”) discs and the growth of bone spurs (osteophytes). Herniated discs and bone spurs only cause neck pain or other symptoms if they press on the nerves or the spinal cord.

Soft Tissue Injury

A sprain is an injury to a muscle or tendon (also called a pulled muscle), and a strain is an injury to a ligament. These injuries are a common source of neck and back pain. Whiplash is a combined sprain/strain injury of the cervical spine that sometimes involves injury to other structures.

Nerve Compression

Nerve compression is often mild, requiring only rest, medication and physical therapy. However, severe nerve compression in the neck may require surgery to alleviate pain. Here are some conditions involving nerve and spinal cord compression in the neck:

  • Cervical foraminal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces (foramen) in the cervical spine where nerves leave to go to other parts of the body, causing nerve compression.
  • Cervical stenosis describes narrowing of the spinal canal and spinal cord compression in the neck.
  • Cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerve in the neck) refers to pressure on a nerve as it leaves the spinal cord.
  • Cervical spondylotic myelopathy describes compression of the spinal cord in the neck.

Burners (also called stingers) are a non-serious injury to one or more nerves between the neck and shoulder that are a common among athletes involved in contact sports, and are a common cause of neck and back pain.

Preventing Neck Pain

Although many cervical spine injuries may lead to neck pain, there are some ways to help prevent these spinal problems. Poor posture is a leading cause of neck and back pain. Repetitive slouching reverses the natural curves of the lumbar and cervical spines, which can damage tissues of the spine.

When you are sitting, you can avoid neck pain by following these steps:

  • Adjust your chair so you’re close to your work. Avoid leaning forward as much as possible.
  • Keep your feet on the floor, using a footrest if necessary, to reduce seated pressure
  • Sit in a way that maintains your spine’s natural posture. Many sources recommend resting your back against a firm backrest with lumbar support, while others suggest sitting on a stability ball.
  • Take frequent breaks to stand up and move.

While you are sleeping, you can work to prevent neck and back pain by:

  • Avoiding sleeping on your stomach if you wake with neck stiffness or pain. If you cannot sleep in another position, place a body pillow under one side of your body to decrease neck rotation.
  • Choosing a firm mattress that nurtures your natural spinal curves, but has a soft enough surface to cushion the body.
  • Sleeping with your neck in a neutral position.

Other factors in your control that can prevent or delay spinal problems include:

  • Exercise
  • Good nutrition
  • Not smoking
  • Using proper lifting techniques.


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Staff. (2010). Cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerve). Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00332

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Staff. (2007). Burners and stingers. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00027

Eidelson, S.G. (n.d.). Sprains — Strains — Soft tissue injuries. Retrieved March 19, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/spinal-cord-injury/sprains-strains-soft-tissue-injuries

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010). Cervical spondylosis. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cervical-spondylosis/DS00697

Spine Universe Staff. (2010). How you can prevent back and neck pain. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/wellness/ergonomics/how-you-can-prevent-back-neck-pain