Radiating neck pain is where pain extends from the neck region into another part of the body — often to the shoulder and arm, or down the shoulder blade and back.
We often think of a "pinched nerve" or Cervical Radiculopathy as being the cause of such pain, but it is not always a nerve that is involved. There are plenty of other scenarios where nerve compression can occur that could cause Radiating Neck Pain for patients. Natural aging, repetitive use, and other health risks could contribute to Radiating Neck Pain.
The reason patients can experience radiating or referred pain, where you sense pain away from the structure that is causing it, relates to the way our bodies are "wired". The same nerves that supply structures of the neck supply other places in the arm and upper back. Your brain perceives the pain as coming from the areas of shared nerve supply, and often as Physical Therapists we see this in distinct patterns. Also, where a nerve is getting irritated by physical compression or irritation from inflammation, the nerve itself becomes a secondary source of pain and you feel pain along the entire nerve and the skin it supplies.
The structures in the neck that are involved in radiating pain are often the discs, the facet joints, the nerve roots that pass right next to these joints, and the muscles of the neck. Quite often, there are combinations of more than one of these structures causing pain at once.
Radiating neck pain can be amongst the most distressing kind of musculoskeletal pain one can experience. Neck movements like turning the neck, looking up or down, can be very painful and stiff. These painful scenarios can make it hard to drive, to turn and look at somebody, or to sleep. The pain can extend all the way to the hand, and with some conditions can be accompanied by tingling or numbness.
With a thorough evaluation, a physical therapist can determine the cause of the radiating neck pain, without first seeing a PCP or a specialist. A patient can also be referred by a Physician who would conduct a physical exam of the patient to determine muscle weakness, sensation loss, extent of the pain, and potentially order MRIs or X-Rays to confirm the diagnosis.
Physical therapy is a great first option for Radiating Neck Pain. At Results Physiotherapy, our licensed Physical Therapists are trained to look for the patterns of symptoms, test the functioning of the nerves, check for anything serious, and analyze the motion of the neck to determine where the problem is. Treatment will often include manual therapy to take the pressure off the structure or nerve, addressing predisposing factors, massage and stretching to involved tight muscles, and exercise to restore motion and postural control.
At times someone might need to be referred to a specialist if they are not responding to PT, and rarely someone might need an injection or surgery to recover.
Most patients recover from Radiating Neck Pain with treatment over a 4-6 week time period, and many will get significant relief within their first couple of visits. We arm our patients with the knowledge of how to prevent a recurrence, what to do if some symptoms start returning, and when to seek help.
Like most musculoskeletal problems, keeping generally healthy is a great defense against Radiating Neck Pain. Good movement habits likewise can be a defense — keeping physically active, having variety with activities, positions, postures, and seeking help when in pain.