Neck pain and arm pain are common complaints for a large portion of the population at any age. They can be caused by aging, accidents, injuries, the natural progression of a disease process, or simple daily strain.
Not every person with neck pain also develops arm pain, but if it does occur it is called cervical radiculopathy. Please visit our cervical radiculopathy page for more information.
This kind of pain can often be debilitating and can make performing even the most simple tasks extremely difficult. Problems in the cervical spine, or the section of the spine in your neck, can cause pain in the neck as well as numbness and weakness in the arms.
Pain in the neck itself can be nonspecific and is more frequently of a muscular source. Pain in the neck after an injury to the neck or head can also be of a muscular source, but should be approached with a higher degree of suspicion and studied more readily.
Arm pain can occur even without neck pain; even so, it can still result from problems in the neck.
Areas of the arms or hands can develop numbness (anesthesias) or tingling (paraesthesia). This can be in the same or different areas of the arm or hand than the area of pain. These symptoms can be from pressure or injury to the nerves in the neck or spinal cord. Such symptoms can also be the result of pressure or injury to the nerves along their course after they have left the spine; this is called peripheral neuropathy.
Weakness in the arms or legs or a decline in muscle size or tone can also be a symptom of pressure on the nerves. This situation is often more subtle. It occurs over a period of time and often is unnoticed or overlooked because it is not as noticeable as pain or numbness.
More long-term effects may come from whiplash injuries. Whiplash can cause pain in the neck and arms as well as headaches, facial pain, dizziness, irritability, sleep disturbance and swallowing difficulties (dysphagia). About 65% of whiplash victims make a full recovery, 25% have residual symptoms, and 5-10% develop chronic pain syndromes.
There are a number of surgical and non-surgical treatment options available for neck and arm pain caused by disorders of the cervical spine. The goal of the team at Neurosurgery and Endovascular Associates is to help you to manage the pain effectively and improve your quality of life.
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Spine Anatomy: What is Healthy Cervical Spine Like?
- Your cervical spine is made up of the top seven vertebrae in your spine. The first two vertebrae, known as C1 and C2, are shaped differently from the lower C3, C4, C5, C6, and C7 vertebrae.
- Your spine is composed of bones called vertebrae that stack on top of each other.
- These vertebrae are separated by discs that have a fibrous coating surrounding a spongy center. Healthy discs act as shock absorbers and provide flexibility.
- The vetebral canal houses the spinal column, which contains the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that extends through the whole cervical spine.
- Nerve roots also branch off the spinal column and exit through holes called foramen.
- The lamina is the bridged section that forms the back of the vertebral canal, and is important in spinal stability.
- The spinous process is the bony ridge you can feel when you run your hand down your back and the back of your neck.
- Strong and flexible muscles help support your neck.
What are the Causes of an Unhealthy Cervical Spine?
Pain in the neck and arms can have a number of causes rooted in the cervical spine.
Herniated & Bulging Discs
- Wear on a disc can cause the outer layer to rupture, creating a hernia.
- The herniated disc can push on the spinal canal and nerve roots, causing pain, numbness, and weakness.
- A bulging disc can also put pressure on the nerve, but the disc does not actually rupture as with a herniated disc.
- Wear on the vertebrae can cause bone spurs, which are bony malformations that can put pressure on discs and inflame the nerves, causing pain.
- Since bone spurs can put pressure on discs, the discs can flatten, dehydrate, and become degenerate.
Cervical Spinal Stenosis
- Cervical spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column or foramen due to bone spurs or disc protrusion. It is sometimes referred to as a “pinched nerve”.
- Central stenosis can pinch the spinal cord, and foraminal stenosis can pinch the nerve roots that exit through the foramen.
- This pinching can cause back, shoulder, and arm pain. It can also cause numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.
What Treatments Exist for Neck and Arm Pain?
Surgery is never our first choice. If Dr. Ahuja believes conservative treatments would be beneficial to try, there are a variety of options available. Our goal is to eliminate your pain or to get it to a level you can tolerate, hopefully without surgery.
- Dr. Ahuja will often prescribe physical therapy, which can be very beneficial for some patients.
- Physical therapists can teach patients exercises and ways to improve their posture and reduce stress on their neck.
- There are many different types of physical therapy that may be prescribed, ranging from water therapy to special massage techniques.
- Patients may be given home exercises that can help reduce stress on the spine and improve symptoms.
- Physical therapy can strengthen the muscles in your neck, which can often improve symptoms.
Cervical Spine Traction
- Cervical spine traction is a physical therapy kit that can be done with a therapist or at home.
- Traction helps relieve pressure between the vertebrae and discs and can help open up the holes that are pinching the nerves and causing pain.
- Traction is easy to do at home. It can be done several times a day for 5-7 minutes and is a simple way to improve your symptoms.
- Medications are often an effective way to calm muscle spasms, reduce inflammation, and control pain.
- It is important to take medications exactly as prescribed by Dr. Ahuja to maximize the effect that they will have in improving your symptoms.
- Some medications will only treat pain caused by inflamed tissue, while others will specifically target pain due to pinched nerves. Others will help relax muscle spasms.
If the conservative treatments fail to improve symptoms, Dr. Ahuja will indicate which procedure will be most likely to reduce your pain. Depending on the condition, surgeries designed to relieve neck and arm pain can include cervical discectomy, or a cervical artificial disc replacement such as the Mobi-C® cervical disc.
What Can You Do?
Along with these conservative therapies, there are many things you can do on your own to help improve your symptoms. Good posture, simple exercises, and other manageable steps can reduce neck pain.
See the Improving Posture section on our Lower Back Pain page – those same tips will help relieve neck pain in many cases.
Neck Movement Exercises
Here are a few helpful neck movement exercises that may aid in your recovery. Dr. Ahuja or your physical therapist may suggest different ones depending on your individual needs. These are just suggestions, so please make sure to okay any exercises with Dr. Ahuja first.
- Front To Back: Move your head back and forth 4-5 times, keeping your head tilted upright.
- Swivel: Slowly turn your head right and left, only as far as comfortable.
- Side To Side: Slowly bend back and forth, trying to touch your ears to your shoulders.
- Resistance: Use your hands to press against different sides of your head, and then resist the movement with your neck. This strengthens your neck muscles.
- Neck Lifts: Lie on your back on the floor and lift your head up and down. Repeat this both on your side and stomach, using a pillow to cushion your head.
Other Advice for Neck and Arm Pain
- Stress can also play a major role in your neck pain, so ask Dr. Ahuja about healthy ways you can manage your stress.
- Be sensible about what you can and cannot do, and always make sure to use proper body mechanics.
- Feel free to call our office if you have any questions. We want you to get better and get back to the things you enjoy!