Neck Pain | Causes & Treatment | MedStar Health

The spine program at MedStar Health is well respected in the central Maryland and Washington, D.C., region for the diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of neck pain and spine disorders. Our program brings together a variety of skilled specialists with experience in a wide range of spinal conditions, including some of the most complex conditions seen in orthopedic medicine.

Our multidisciplinary team includes orthopedic spine surgeons, neurosurgeons, physiatrists (rehabilitative medicine physicians), nursing staff, physical and occupational therapists, radiologists, and an interventional pain management team—and we put all our expertise to work for you, to relieve your neck pain and get you back to your active life.

What is neck pain?

The spine consists of bones (vertebrae) separated by soft cushions (discs). Nerves that travel from the brain to the rest of the body all pass through the spine. When pressure from spinal vertebrae is applied to nerves, pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness can occur. These sensations are not always relegated to the back or spine as back pain; rather, they can occur in many areas of the body, depending on what nerves are pressed, where they originate in the spine, and where they travel to.

No matter how sharp, or how long it lasts, neck pain often limits our ability to feel active and productive. The top priority for anyone suffering from neck pain is simply to eliminate the pain. Common causes of neck pain include:

  • Poor posture, especially while using a computer or watching television
  • Quickly twisting or moving your head
  • Sleeping in a bad position

Arm and leg pain can arise from neck issues or injuries. Experiencing serious pain in our arms and legs can make even the simplest tasks feel very difficult.

Pain is identified two different ways: acute and chronic. Most people with back or neck injuries suffer from acute pain, which lasts four to six weeks and can stop without medical treatment. Chronic pain lasts for more than three months and requires medical treatment.

Neck Pain

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The spine consists of 33 vertebrae that protect the spinal cord and provides stability to the Torso. The first seven vertebrae comprise the cervical spine.

Neck pain diagnosis

When you arrive at a MedStar Health's facility with neck pain, our orthopedic teams will thoroughly review your medical history and symptoms and may perform a range of physical and laboratory examinations—all with the goal of making the most accurate diagnosis so we can give you the best treatment.

The most common screenings to pinpoint the source of your pain or associated pain include the following:

  • X-rays show the alignment of your bones and whether you have a degenerative joint disease or possible tumors.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans can reveal herniated discs or problems with muscles, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, or blood vessels.
  • Myelography uses dye to show areas where your spinal cord may be getting pinched by the vertebrae in your back.
  • Bone scans detect bone tumors or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis.
  • Electrodiagnostic studies can confirm nerve compression caused by herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
  • Discograms determine any damage to discs.
  • Electromyography (EMG) assesses nerve or muscle damage.

Understanding your pain is the first step in relieving it. Once an accurate diagnosis is reached, your MedStar orthopedic physician can discuss with you the specifics of your condition and determine a treatment plan that will meet your individual needs.

Conditions that cause neck pain

Brachial plexus injury: The brachial plexus is a group of nerves that transmit messages from the spine to the hand, shoulder, and arm. Inflammation, a tumor, or a serious shoulder injury can damage the brachial plexus and cause arm, shoulder, and neck pain as well as numbness, weakness, or paralysis in the arm.

Degenerative disc disease: Flattening of the discs in between the vertebrae is a natural part of the aging process, causing the spaces separating the vertebrae to become smaller, which can affect the stability of the spine.

Facet syndrome: This condition is caused by inflammation of one or more of the facet joints. Facet joints are pairs of joints running on either side and in between each of the vertebrae along the entire length of the spine. These structures allow for movement of the spine and provide stability. These joints can become inflamed and cause pain in that area. Physical therapy and other non-surgical treatments such as spinal injections are often used to rehabilitate the spine.

Muscle strain or spasm: Pulled muscle or overworked muscle.

Osteoarthritis: Cartilage surrounding the spinal vertebrae gradually erodes, causing the bone to contact with the nerve.

Osteoporosis: Bone density is lost, causing vertebrae to weaken, fracture, or collapse, putting pressure on spinal nerves causing pain.

Treatment of neck pain

Neck pain treatment generally depends on how severe your pain is and the underlying cause. Common non-surgical treatment options may include:

  • Prescription and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or pain medications
  • Injections of steroids or anti-inflammatory medications
  • Physical therapy, including applying heat or ice, massage, and strengthening exercises
  • Braces

If non-surgical treatment does not relieve your neck pain, you may need surgery. The orthopedic surgeons at MedStar Health have extensive training in the most advanced and innovative surgical procedures to treat neck pain, including minimally invasive neck surgery and motion-sparing surgery.

Our providers

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Expert specialty care

Getting the care you need starts with seeing one of our neck specialists.