Let’s first look at the anatomy of the neck in order to better understand the structures of the cervical spine that can generate pain.
Starting at the back of the spine, the facet joints allow us to move our neck and head in all directions, and each facet joint is surrounded by a joint capsule that is rich with nerve endings and when swollen, can generate pain both locally and radiating.
There have been MANY studies conducted on the benefits and efficacy of spinal manipulation to treat back pain—so much so that many medical doctors frequently refer patients with back pain to chiropractors for this service. But what about neck pain?
Although it’s taken a little longer to compile the evidence, there is now substantial research to support that spinal manipulation for neck pain is equally effective as it is for low back pain in regards to improving pain levels, function, and quality of life.
Multiple reviews and meta-analyses (studies that evaluate the research over a series of years) indicate that mobilization, manipulation, and exercise all work alone but appear to give the best long-term benefits when used in combination with each other.
In the acute and subacute stages of neck pain, studies show cervical manipulation is more effective than various combinations of analgesics, muscle relaxants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for improving pain and function in both the short and intermediate term.
Studies show that thoracic or mid-back manipulation is also very helpful for patients with neck pain. Chiropractic approaches often include a combination of spinal manipulation, manual cervical traction, figure-8 mobilization, and deep tissue trigger point/active release forms of therapy.
As noted above, the inclusion of exercise yields the best long-term benefits, especially for chronic neck pain.
One such exercise is Cranio-cervical flexion (deep neck flexor strengthening): Tuck the chin inwards, pushing the mid part of the neck backward with or without resisting into your fingers/hands or a towel wrapped around the neck. A gradual crescendo of pressure followed by a gradual release (or decrescendo) works well!
Another great exercise is Fiber Stretching: Side-bend the head and neck while applying gentle over-pressure while simultaneously reaching downward with the opposite arm/hand, searching for tight muscle fibers. Try combining forward and backward rotations and chin glide head movements while applying the over-pressure/reach combinations, and work each tight fiber until it loosens up.
There are many other exercises the chiropractors at Oakland Spine can show you, but these are a great start!
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