If you’ve ever had neck pain in Toronto, you’ll know how annoying and frustrating it can be. Not only does it hurt, but it makes it hard to do everything you want. Shoulder checking. Forget it. Exercising. Forget it. And about a million other things suddenly become almost impossible, if not excruciating.
So what causes neck pain, and how can you get neck pain relief in Toronto?
There are a number of causes of neck pain, but let’s start with the basics.
Your neck is composed of 7 bones, called vertebrae. There are discs which separate most of them (the top two don’t have a disc), and there are joints in the back which guide the motion of your neck as you move. These are called facet joints, or zygapophyseal joints.
There is also a curve in your neck, called a lordosis, which arcs towards the front, and has the same shape as the curve in your low back.
There are also a number of muscles and ligaments and tendons that attach to the vertebrae, increasing stability, and allowing for movement.
Generally, if you have neck pain, there is a problem with one of these structures
If you’ve ever slept in a funny way, and woken up with your neck stuck, it’s likely you have an issue with one or more of the joints in the back of your neck, termed the facet joints.
Sleeping with your head twisted puts increased stress on these neck joints, and can compress and temporarily irritate them. This can cause inflammation in the joint, irritating joint structures and the nerves that exit from your neck, causing pain.
The best way to get neck pain relief if you sleep on your stomach is to avoid this posture in the first place! Try not to sleep on your stomach, as your head must be twisted all night, otherwise you would suffocate in your pillow.
Imagine sitting with your head turned one way for 6-8 hours straight. Do you think your neck might be a little sore? Absolutely! This is no different from when you sleep, it’s just that you’re unconscious then, and can’t feel it.
This can be a tough habit to break, but we’ve had patients even in their 60s and 70s that had slept like this for years, and still were able to change.
Something I did years ago, to force myself to change this habit, was to take a tennis ball, put it in a pair of nylons, and tie it around my waist, so that the tennis ball was facing forwards on my stomach.
When I inevitably flipped over onto my stomach during the night, lying on the tennis ball would wake me up, and I’d be forced to change position. After doing this for a week, I was cured!
I now sleep on my back or side 80-90% of the time. Try it…surprisingly simple, but it works!
For starters, this is our recommended position for sleep, since it balances the gravitational stress on your body at night.
Use a SMALL pillow, which doesn’t push your head and neck forwards over your body. No giant hotel pillows please!
We spend far too much time with our head forwards already, staring down at various screens. We don’t need our head being forced forwards for another 7-8 hours while we sleep!
A small pillow is best, ideally one which supports your head, and fills in the natural curvature in your neck. Smaller is definitely better for back sleepers.
As a side sleeper, you will need a THICKER pillow, one that takes up the space between your ear/side of your head, and the outer portion of your shoulder.
The function of your pillow is to keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine, neutral, so there is less compression of it.
If your pillow is too high, your head and neck are pushed and stretched upwards; if it’s too low, it’s dropped down all night, causing neck pain.
This is why a “one-size-fits-all” pillow doesn’t exist!
If you have wide shoulders, and sleep on your side, you need a larger pillow.
If you have leaner narrower shoulders, a slightly smaller pillow would be better for you.
Remember, it’s all about keeping your head and neck neutral with your spine, so it’s not stretched or compressed.
If you ever find that you have neck pain after falling asleep on a plane, it’s likely because your head tilts back too far in the seat, and is twisted at the same time, aggravating the joints in your neck.
Aside from not falling asleep, the next best thing is to invest $15 in a neck pillow specifically for planes or cars, which holds your neck relatively neutral. Well worth the money!
The most serious cause of neck pain in Toronto are the discs in your neck, or disc degeneration. This is sometimes generally referred to as neck arthritis, although that can mean a number of neck conditions. While this is less common in younger adults (as there hasn’t been as long for the disc degeneration to occur), this can cause significant neck pain. If it progresses, it can lead not only to neck pain, but also radiating pain, causing shoulder pain, and even arm pain and hand pain. This may also contribute to other sensory conditions, like numbness or tingling (mimicking carpal tunnel syndrome), and also weakness in your arms and hands, with difficulty opening jars, and a tendency to drop objects.
The main reason for neck disc degeneration is a loss of the normal cervical curve, which is called a lordosis. The main reason for this is chronic forward slouched posture, over years and years, often from sitting at a desk or computer. The other main cause is trauma to the spine, either a fall or sports injury, or a car accident resulting in any type of whiplash trauma.
We see these changes on a very consistent basis in our office. The head shifts forward over the spine (a term called anterior head displacement), which puts excessive stress onto the front portion of the bones and discs in the neck, causing them to wear out prematurely.
Bone spurs can form on the vertebrae, and the discs can become thinner and thinner as they degenerate, in some cases becoming so severe they eventually fuse, causing more and more neck pain.
We explain to patients that the process is similar to how a bunion forms on the big toe of the foot. As the foot rolls in, called pronation, there is increased stress on the inside of the big toe.The body lays down extra bone on the big toe to stabilize it. If this continues for years and years, the big toe can eventually become severely deformed.
The neck is no different. If it has shifted forward for years, pulling the neck straight or even worse reversing it, this increases the stress on the front of the neck. It was never designed to be in this state chronically for years.
This leads to increased bone being formed on the front of the vertebra to stabilize it (like with a bunion), and the discs, with the extra weight on them, degenerate at a much faster rate than normal.
All of this creates chronic inflammation, irritating nerves, and leading to limited movement in your neck chronically (not just for a day or two), and neck pain. This will also typically be visualized on x-ray.
The first step is trying to slow the disc degeneration down, and minimize any further damage. If it started from the head and neck being displaced too far forward, from a chronic structural shift in the neck, then we work on reversing this forward shift.
Being conscious about your posture can help. Minimizing those postures that pull your head forward, like staring down at a phone or screen, can be a good first step.
1. Become aware of it. You can’t change something you’re not even conscious of. Try to set a timer when you’re working at a desk, to go off every 30 minutes. Then get up from your desk, stop looking down, and do some neck retraction exercises.
There are several exercises we recommend to patients to counteract the damaging affects of forward head displacement, and the effects of gravity.
Very simply, this neck pain exercise is designed to reverse some of the chronic forward poor posture that compresses the discs and bones in your neck when you sit for hours and hours, day after day, for years, providing neck pain relief.
Keep your chin neutral, and “suck” your chin backwards, so that you’re essentially trying to make a double chin (don’t worry, it’s only temporary!). Try to keep your chin neutral, or horizontal with the floor, so you’re not elevating it too high towards the ceiling, or dropping it significantly down.
The idea is to strengthen some of the muscles in the back of your neck, and to retrain your neck and brain to recognize that the forward neck posture is bad for you, and needs to be changed, for long term neck pain relief in Toronto.
Stretching some of the muscles in the front of your neck and chest, that are chronically shortened due to extended sitting and looking down, will also lessen some of the abnormal forward pulling stress in your body.
A pectoral stretch can be done with one arm out straight against a wall, with one arm bent in a doorway, or by doing both sides at the same time in a doorway.
As with most stretches, focus on holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds, and do each side three times, for maximum neck pain relief in Toronto.
The SCM (sternocleidomastoid) and scalene muscles run down the side and front of your neck, and are almost always shortened and tight in anyone who sits for extended periods, or who looks down for extended periods.
To stretch your SCM and scalenes, you want to sit, then bend your ear to your opposite shoulder, rotate your head so you’re looking diagonally up in the opposite direction, then slowly rotate your head towards the opposite shoulder, all while holding some tension in the stretch.
You should feel the stretch at multiple points in your neck movement, targeting different parts of your SCM and scalenes. If one particular area in your neck feels tighter or slightly sore, hold the neck stretch in that area for longer.
If you’re looking for a neck pain specialist in Toronto, we have been helping people with neck pain in Toronto for over 15 years, and in that time, have helped thousands of people find neck pain relief.
While the advice and recommendations we’ve given throughout this article are all well researched and valuable, everyone is different, including you!
It is beyond the scope of this article to give specific neck pain treatment recommendations for each person, as this will vary depending on your specific symptoms, and on the objective examination and structural x-ray changes seen.
Please consult with a qualified and experienced neck pain specialist before starting any new stretching or exercise program.
If you are having significant neck pain, or numbness or tingling or weakness, please consult with a qualified corrective chiropractor in Toronto, who has specialized neck pain treatments to help you feel better, but also to stabilize your spine, to correct the underlying cause of your neck pain, so it does not continue getting worse.
Your neck is a very complicated and delicate structure, and proper diagnosis for what YOUR specific cause is, is crucial for your proper neck pain treatment in Toronto, and neck pain relief.
If we can be of assistance, or if you have specific questions, please feel free to contact our office today.
Dr. Byron Mackay