Neck Pain is the fourth leading cause of disability and affects more than 30% of adults in the U.S., according to a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal.
If you’ve had neck pain for some time and tried various treatments, you may be wondering, is this something I just accept and live with?
The answer is no. You should not have to live with persistent neck pain.
It is likely that you just haven’t found the right treatment for your neck condition. If you’ve tried treatments such as rest, medications, injections, or surgery, you simply haven’t had the appropriate care for your neck pain.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to healing physical conditions such as neck pain. The problem with many treatments (even those recommended by your primary care doctor) is that they tend to focus on symptom reduction rather than permanently fixing the underlying cause of your pain.
Treatments like medications, injections, and rest can help you feel better temporarily because they minimize the symptoms you feel and can mask your pain.
But what about when you stop swallowing the pills or return to your usual activities and lifestyle after surgery?
Your pain in the neck will return. It’s practically inevitable when the treatments you’ve tried haven’t fixed the root of the problem.
Fortunately, there is a safe and effective treatment option that can heal your neck pain for good: neck physical therapy.
Neck physical therapy doesn’t just reduce the symptoms – it targets the cause, meaning that your neck can finally heal, and the symptoms won’t keep returning.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about neck physical therapy. We’ll answer all your questions, including:
What is neck physical therapy?
Who is a neck physical therapist?
What can I expect from neck physical therapy?
How does a neck physical therapist make an accurate diagnosis?
What are the most common neck conditions (& their symptoms) treated by neck physical therapists?
Which techniques will a neck physical therapist use to treat my neck condition?
What is Neck Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy for neck pain is a treatment program intended to help patients overcome neck conditions through techniques such as specific physical exercises (such as strengthening & stretching for the neck) and joint mobilization.
Neck physical therapy is a non-invasive, pill-free treatment that can restore a patient’s full range of motion and function in the neck.
Who is a Neck Physical Therapist?
A neck physical therapist is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of neck conditions.
A neck physical therapist is trained to accurately diagnose your condition and determine the underlying cause so that you can finally enjoy a treatment that works.
If you’ve tried various treatment options and still have reoccurring neck pain, a neck physical therapist will combine safe treatment techniques to help you get rid of your pain for good.
What Can I Expect from Neck Physical Therapy?
You can expect to have a treatment that is safe and effective in healing your neck condition.
Most patients meet with their neck physical therapist at least once a week for several weeks. This allows your neck physical therapist to monitor your progress, add or modify treatments, and continue to provide you with certain treatments (such as manual therapy) that you cannot perform at home.
Neck physical therapy requires your participation as well. Your neck physical therapist will probably give you neck strengthening, stretching, and mobility exercises to perform at home before the next appointment.
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You may also be asked to make certain lifestyle changes such as practicing good posture and wearing proper footwear.
Depending on your condition and the severity, you might start to feel better immediately, or it might take at least a few weeks to start feeling better. Either way, it is important to continue the full course of your physical therapy program to ensure that your neck condition fully heals and won’t return.
How Does a Neck Physical Therapist Make an Accurate Diagnosis?
Fixing the cause of a problem is the only successful way to cure the symptoms once and for all. Therefore, neck physical therapists will guide you through a series of questions and tests to accurately diagnose your condition and determine the underlying cause.
First, your neck physical therapist will note information such as your age, weight, symptoms, and history of injury or illness. Then, you will answer questions such as “how long have you had the pain?” or “what makes your pain better or worse?”
Patients typically report that the following things make their neck pain feel worse:
Repetitive motion (for example, your head bouncing up and down while running or twisting your head repeatedly for certain activities)
Poor Sleeping Habits
Grinding/Gritting Your Teeth
Carrying a heavy bag or purse
Sports-related Injuries (for example, a shoulder injury which makes your neck pain feel worse from the increased tension)
Whiplash (such as from a car accident)
To help you prepare for your first appointment, consider jotting down what makes your pain better or worse to help your neck physical therapist make a more accurate diagnosis.
First, your neck physical therapist will examine your spine for any visual injuries or deformities.
Next, your neck physical therapist may ask you to sit, stand, walk, or perform daily activities so that he or she can look at your posture and technique.
Many patients don’t even realize that they have poor posture. If you spend a lot of time hunched over your desk or looking down at a phone, it is likely that your poor posture is at least partially responsible for your neck pain.
Range of Motion Testing
Your neck physical therapist will assess the range of motion in your neck and shoulder by asking you to stretch and move your neck and shoulders into different positions.
Range of motion is a test to measure the movement around a joint or body part. Not having a full range of motion can contribute to neck pain and injuries.
Your neck physical therapist may press a goniometer lightly against your skin. A goniometer is a ruler-like tool used to measure the angles of your joints.
If you have a poor range of motion, your neck physical therapist will include range of motion exercises and stretches to improve your flexibility.
Weak muscles in the neck and surrounding areas are a common underlying cause of neck pain. Your neck physical therapist will ask you to perform certain movements (such as pressing into his or her hands using your neck muscles) to test for muscular strength.
Functional testing will allow your neck physical therapist to see how you function with daily activities. Your neck physical therapist will examine how you move and ask if you feel pain or an inability to perform daily tasks.
Functional testing will continue periodically throughout the physical therapy program as an indicator of healing progression.
What are the Most Common Neck Conditions (& Their Symptoms) Treated by Neck Physical Therapists?
Neck physical therapists treat a variety of neck conditions. Some of the most common conditions (& their symptoms) treated by neck physical therapists include:
Bulging & Herniated Discs
Discs are cartilaginous joints located between the backbones in the spine that act as shock absorbers and vertebrae connectors.
A bulging disc (aka a “slipped” or “protruding” disc) is a condition in which a disc protrudes out of its normal position. When a disc is displaced, it can place pressure on nearby nerves, which creates pain and other symptoms.
A herniated disc is a condition in which the jelly-like interior of the disc slips through the hard exterior. When the interior presses against nearby nerves, you may feel pain and other symptoms like a bulging disc.
Both conditions are typically caused by factors such as poor posture, hypermobility of the joints, and improper technique during certain movements such as bending.
Bulging & Herniated Disc Symptoms
Pain & numbness on one side of the body
Pain, tingling, and/or burning sensation that might extend to the arms or legs
Pain that worsens at night or with certain movements
Pain and/or tingling that worsens with staying in a certain position for a long period of time, such as looking down or sitting
Unexplained muscle weakness
Neck arthritis, also known as cervical spondylosis, is an age-related condition where the joints and discs degenerate due to wear and tear.
Neck arthritis can lead to chronic neck pain if not treated properly. Fortunately, neck physical therapy can help patients manage neck arthritis and function normally again, pain-free.
Symptoms of Neck Arthritis
Neck stiffness & pain (especially when turning the head/neck or looking upward)
Numbness/weakness in the arms or legs
Pain in the neck that may radiate to the arms
Muscle spasms in the neck
Popping/cracking/grinding sounds in the neck with certain movements
Numbness or weakness in the legs or feet that may lead to problems with balance
Postural Neck Pain
Most cases of neck pain are a result of poor posture. Poor neck posture such as leaning your head forward or downward can increase stress on the cervical spine.
More and more neck physical therapists are seeing patients who have “text neck.” With the lengthy amount of time that many people spend with their heads positioned forward and downward to use a smartphone, the neck is prone to pain and injuries related to this posture.
It will take a lot of self-reminders to get in the habit of good posture, but you will feel so much better when you achieve it.
When you get rid of the excess strain on your spine from bad posture, your neck symptoms will likely disappear, and you can prevent many other posture-related injuries.
Symptoms of Postural Neck Pain
Neck pain that worsens when sitting
Pain across the back of your neck
Muscle stiffness and tightness in the neck
Difficulty turning the head in certain directions due to pain or lack of mobility/flexibility
Neck pain that worsens with certain head positions
Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spaces in the spine narrow, putting extra pressure on the nerves that run through the spine. This condition occurs most commonly in the neck and lower back. Adults over 50 are at a higher risk of developing spinal stenosis.
Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis
Numbness & tingling in the neck which increases with certain movements and may extend into the arms & hands
Weakness in the shoulder, arm, and hand
Foot drop (which is an inability to lift the toes/foot upward, such as when walking)
Tripping (in severe cases)
Which Techniques Will a Physical Therapist Use to Treat My Neck Condition?
Once your neck physical therapist has determined the cause(s) of your condition, he or she will create a personalized program that may include a combination of the following treatment techniques:
Spinal traction is a safe and non-invasive decompression therapy intended to alleviate pressure on the spine.
Your neck physical therapist may use his or her hands to manually widen the spaces between the vertebrae of your spine. He or she may also use tools such as ropes, slings, or pulleys to stretch the spine in ways that you are unable to do.
Spinal traction is especially useful for patients who have conditions that impact their discs (such as bulging or herniated discs) because this type of treatment heals these conditions by straightening the spine.
Strength & Mobility Exercises
Strength and mobility exercises are key to healing neck conditions and preventing new ones from occurring. Your neck physical therapist will guide you through exercises that improve your neck’s strength and mobility. With a strong neck and surrounding muscles, you can have permanent relief from your symptoms.
Gently stretching the neck can alleviate pain and improve your range of motion. Your neck physical therapist will assign you specific stretches to heal your neck condition.
As with all exercises that your neck physical therapist assigns to you, he or she will monitor your form to ensure you are doing the exercises correctly.
Your neck physical therapist will use his or her hands to loosen stiff joints in your neck. This safe and effective therapeutic movement can restore optimum functioning, motion, and movability of the neck.
Unfortunately, many people who have neck pain are given treatments that are only temporary and full of side-effects.
Neck physical therapists won’t let you fall victim to misinformation and ineffective treatments. They will share their knowledge with you so that you can enjoy lasting relief.
Your neck physical therapist may suggest certain lifestyle changes such as taking more stretching breaks throughout the day or reducing the load on your spine by wearing proper footwear and apparel.
Dr. Scott Gray is an internationally recognized and expert physical therapist specializing in sport, athletic, and back and neck injuries. He is the inventor of a revolutionary form of treatment called the GRAY METHOD. This type of treatment unlike others, addresses the CAUSE rather than just your SYMPTOMS with a full body approach. For more information on how to ease or overcome your injury, go to www.backinmotionsspt.com.