Muscle pain, muscle spasms, join-paint, bone pain — these are some of the most common complaints we hear related to neck pain. While each patient’s symptoms tend to vary in severity and type, being troubled by some degree of neck pain at some point in your life is very common. And assuming you haven’t had recent trauma to the neck such as an auto accident, sports injury or fall, your neck pain is most likely being brought on by the way you use your shoulder muscles the day, and/or the position you sleep in during the night
Often times, neck pain will gradually improve on its own. But, this isn’t the case for everyone. Neck pain can morph into headaches and stress on the joint between the skull and the uppermost vertebral body. This can lead to pinched nerves lower in the neck. These pinched nerves can lead to arm weakness, or numbness, or both. If your neck pain is not improving and/or it is accompanied by headaches, numbness, or loss of arm strength then it’s important to seek treatment from a doctor.
Is a Doctor Going to Prescribe Surgery for My Neck Pain?
Some doctors depend on surgeons to evaluate patients with neck pain. The concern here? Surgeons operate. I don’t think all, or even most surgeons, want to jump immediately to surgery to treat neck pain. But some do, believing that surgery is the “final answer” to curing back pain.
There are only three good reasons to perform surgery to relieve neurological problems in the neck, and you’ll notice that two of them are only for cases where conservative therapy, such as physical therapy concentrating on shoulder movement, or sometimes steroid injections, have already failed:
- Intractable pain that doesn’t respond to conservative therapy including epidural pain blocking.
- Progressive weakness of an arm despite conservative therapy.
- “Long tract symptoms,” where issues in the neck present symptoms in lower parts of the body, like leg weakness or bladder problems, by spinal cord compression.
If you think you may fall into one of those three areas, it’s important to have the proper tests done to know what’s really wrong and how bad it is. This, and only this will give you the answer of whether or not surgery is the only answer to alleviate your neck pain.
Understanding Your Neck Pain Can Help You Avoid Surgery
Avoiding surgery to alleviate your neck pain can be as simple as stopping the everyday things you are unknowingly doing that place abnormal stresses on the neck. I’ll use the following as an example.
The modern lifestyle makes us spend our active hours with our hands lifted in front of us. Everything we do is in front of us. Our arms are heavy, and over years this arms-in-front posture rounds our shoulders forward and down, and it also bends our upper spine forward. Further aggravating the problem is, sometimes, when we do exercises at the gym, we do lat pulldowns, bench presses, pushups, and even shrugs. These exercises actually make the shoulder rounding worse instead of better because they strengthen muscles that internally rotate the shoulders.
While in a forward-leaning posture as described above, the muscles that are supposed to hold the shoulders up are in the wrong position to do this, relative to the direction of gravity. One muscle, in particular, picks up the slack. That muscle is the levator scapulae. As this overworking of the levator scapulae continues, it starts to become overstressed, tightening or cramping and ultimately starting to cause neck pain.
To stop this pain, you don’t need surgery. Instead, you have to stop misusing your body. During the day, we must take pressure off our necks and train and re-strengthen the muscles responsible for correctly moving our shoulders. At night, it’s important to sleep on our backs to give our necks a break for added pressure and stress, both of which are placed on the neck when sleeping on our tummy.
Surgery is the last resort for neck pain, hardly ever the “final answer.” Only when the drivers we’ve talked about are present should surgery even be considered for the neck. If you experiencing chronic neck pain, I recommend getting an opinion from a non-surgical specialist outside the hospital system before having surgery. They can do the tests necessary to help you find out what’s really going on and hopefully avoid unnecessary surgery.