You know the feeling—intense pain in your neck or lower back that bothers you throughout the day. Your neck is stiff, your back is tight, and painkillers and stretching it out only go so far. Sometimes, the pain will even wake you up at night.
When you have pain that just doesn’t seem to go away, you might not know what exactly is causing your discomfort. Did I just sleep on it wrong? Did I pull a muscle while I was working out? Or is something more serious going on?
Googling your symptoms almost never helps. The results will either leave you feeling confused or worried that you might need surgery. You scroll through millions of results trying to figure out what’s bothering you, but you’re just left with even more questions and in even more pain.
You can go ahead and close that search tab—because this is the last blog about neck and back pain you’ll ever need to read. Most neck and back pain comes from common causes that are easy to treat—without surgery or harsh prescription drugs. In this blog, we’ll talk about where your pain might be coming from and how an integrative approach can help you feel better in no time.
Why do I have neck and back pain?
About 1 in 3 people will experience neck pain in the course of a year, and up to 80% of Americans will have back pain at some point in their lives. It’s no surprise that Google has pages and pages of results when you research it!
So, why do we get neck and back pain? First, let’s talk about your spine. Your spine runs from the base of your skull to your tailbone. The spine is an amazing part of your body—it’s made of interconnected bones, making it flexible. It’s also strong enough to hold your head, neck, and torso upright. Your spine also houses your spinal cord, which acts as a system to send brain signals to the rest of your body. We need our spines to do almost everything, and when something’s not working right, that’s usually where neck and back pain comes in.
At Ethos, many of our patients come in complaining of either neck or lower back pain. After a while, the pain can radiate into other parts of your body, depending on what’s causing it. With a thorough health screening and digital imaging, your doctor should be able to determine the cause. Below are some common reasons you could have back and neck pain:
Do you spend a lot of time on your computer for work or on your phone while taking a break? The answer is probably yes! You probably don’t realize it, but the way you hunch over your tech devices can have a huge impact on your neck. The average human head weighs about 10-12 pounds, and when your head is upright, your spine can easily handle that weight. But when you hunch or lean forward the weight compounds, adding up to 60 pounds of pressure on your spine. You can imagine how that would lead to a bad crick in your neck!
The most common cause of whiplash is usually a car accident. If you or someone you know has gotten rear-ended on the road (or rear-ended another car), you probably remember complaints of bad neck pain for a few days afterward. That’s because the intense, sudden forward-and-back movement of the crash strained the ligaments of your neck. Whiplash is typically not a serious condition, but some victims of car accidents experience pain months or even years after the event.
We’re all guilty of it—slouching in our office chair as the afternoon wears on, or doing monotonous tasks at our job that require an awkward, hunched position (if you’re a dental hygienist, you understand!) Your spine, which has a natural curvature, is designed to be somewhat upright (not necessarily ramrod-straight like your strict grade-school teacher told you) and aligned. Poor posture puts weight on different areas of your back and neck, leading to strain in your muscles and ligaments. (Ligaments are the tissues that connect your bones together.)
Any woman who has ever been pregnant knows how much your back can hurt during pregnancy. This is usually due to the extra weight of the baby and the pressure the growing uterus can put on the spine. Also, when a woman gets closer to delivery, her body releases a chemical called relaxin, which literally loosens the pelvic joints so the baby can pass through the birth canal. This can cause misalignment in your lower spine or pelvis, and you may even feel the pain long after your pregnancy is over.
Side note: menstrual periods often cause back pain as well, but this is usually not related to the spine or bones, but to prostaglandins. These hormones cause the cramping you feel while on your period. Women on hormonal birth control also experience similar pain for the same reason.
Arthritis, which causes inflammation in the joints of your bones, can happen anywhere in your body. It typically happens in older patients. You’re more likely to have arthritis if you have a family history of the condition, you’ve injured your back or neck in the past, you are overweight, or you’re a female. However, arthritis can happen to anyone at any age.
Current or past injuries can cause back and neck pain, whether you were injured on the job, in an accident, or playing a sport. This can especially happen with repeat movements, lifting weights incorrectly, or lifting objects that are too heavy for you. Past injuries can cause pain if not treated correctly the first time.
What causes neck and back pain?
We’ve covered some key reasons you could be experiencing neck and back pain. Now, we’re going to get into the mechanics. Knowing what’s going on in your body can help you pinpoint where your pain is coming from and better explain it to your doctor.
As we said above, ligaments are stretchy tissue that connects your bones throughout your body and prevents them from rubbing against each other. Poor posture, tech neck, or whiplash can cause the ligaments in your spine to loosen over time, kind of like an over-stretched rubber band. When they’re stretched out, they are no longer stable enough to keep your head or shoulders in an upright, pain-free position. Other than pain, some symptoms include tingling, numbness, clicking or cracking joints, and muscle spasms.
Your spine is home to tiny joints called facets, and when these joints become inflamed, they can cause chronic pain. Inflammation is usually caused by arthritis, injury, or strain. Symptoms usually include the inability to fully move your head or back without pain or stiffness. Patients also experience headaches when the pain radiates through their neck.
Your spine is an important part of the nervous system, which is your brain’s way of communicating. When the individual nerves in your back and neck become inflamed, it can cause some pretty intense pain. This pain doesn’t originate in the bone or muscle. A good indicator that you’re experiencing nerve pain is if the pain becomes better with rest and worse with activity.
Typical Remedies for Neck and Back Pain
Did one of the above causes sound familiar to you? Talk to your doctor about the type of pain you’re experiencing and where it’s located in your back or neck. They will ask you questions about your health history, any accidents or surgeries you’ve had, and what kind of medications you take. They may also take X-rays or CT scans. Once they have diagnosed your pain, they will give you a few options for treatment depending on the severity of your condition. They may suggest any of the following approaches, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
- Over-the-counter relief. Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide short-term relief for back and neck pain. However, using NSAIDs frequently to relieve pain can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, including ulcers.
- Narcotic pain medication. Doctors can prescribe controlled substances to treat neck and back pain, especially if the pain interferes with your everyday life. Narcotics can become habitual if used too frequently, and your body may become dependent on them for pain relief.
- Steroid injections. Steroid injections at the site of your pain provide a higher level of anti-inflammatory relief, but they are not for everyone. Steroids can cause short-term blood sugar dysregulation, and in the long term, they can cause your cartilage to break down, making your pain worse.
- Ablation therapy. Ablation therapy involves destroying nerves to disrupt pain signals. This is a good short-term solution, but your body will adapt and send those pain signals elsewhere in your body.
- Physical therapy. Physical therapy is a great way to alleviate neck and back pain and help you keep your range of motion. Make sure you find a physical therapist who specializes in either neck or back pain.
- Surgery. Doctors typically perform fusion surgery on patients with neck or back pain. This involves fusing joints together to prevent mobility, thus eliminating pain. However, the body will adapt by loosening joints surrounding the fusion, which causes more back pain and problems.
An Integrative Approach to Neck and Back Pain
At Ethos Integrative Medicine, we believe there’s a better way to treat our patients and get them feeling their best again. Our treatment plan goes beyond pain management or short-term relief. Instead, we focus on whole-body wellness and pain relief that will last for years.
- Comprehensive evaluation. We’ll do a full physical exam and computer imaging to diagnose your pain.
- Accurate diagnosis. We ensure that your diagnosis is correct so we treat you for the right condition.
- Customized treatment plan. We’ll create a treatment plan that includes focused nutrition, physical activity, and tissue-specific dietary supplements to help your body build what it needs to respond well to treatment.
- Targeted treatment. We use innovative, non-invasive treatment methods like platelet-rich plasma injections, prolotherapy, and perineural injections to relieve your pain and provide deep, lasting relief.
Integrative Treatment Options
If you prefer a naturopathic approach to treating your neck and back pain, you have a lot of options. These treatments focus on healing your joints, ligaments, and muscles, not simply relieving pain.
- Prolotherapy. Prolotherapy involves injecting a small amount of glucose (sugar) near the pain site. It promotes the regeneration of tissue and tightens ligaments, which makes it beneficial for those suffering from facet pain.
- Perineural injections. These injections are used to treat nerve pain. Using a small amount of glucose, a perineural injection calms inflammation at the source and provides lasting relief for superficial nerves.
For more information, check out our free resources on neck and back pain from Ethos’ Dr. Morgan Massingale!
Everyday Tips for a Pain-Free Life
Neck and back pain is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s possible to make lifestyle adjustments to avoid chronic pain before it starts. Here’s what you can do to avoid trips to the doctor:
Not all pillows are built the same, and neither are all sleepers! Talk to your doctor or chiropractor about what pillow works best for your sleep style. Depending on how you typically sleep, your pillow might vary in firmness or shape. When you have the right pillow, you don’t have to worry about waking up with a crick in your neck.
Stretch it Out
Light, dynamic stretching before an intense workout helps prime your muscles and “warm” them up, reducing the risk of strain or injury. Yoga in the morning or before bed also increases blood flow throughout your body and improves flexibility, which can prevent everyday strain.
Keep it Light
Know your limits when it comes to lifting heavy objects. You don’t need to be the hero of the office by carrying that heavy package—just to wake up with a sore back the next day! If you want to lift heavier objects, start with some basic weight training and work up to it. And if you do have to lift a heavy object, lift with your knees, not your back or shoulders.
Rest is Best
If you pull a muscle or injure yourself at work, while working out, or after an accident, take time to recover. This might mean taking a few days off your workout routine or wearing a neck brace (especially if you were in a car accident.) If your injury isn’t fully healed and your remain active, you might cause more injury to yourself.
Feed Your Joints
Consider adding joint-friendly supplements to your diet. Your joints love supplements like fish oil, calcium, vitamin D, and glucosamine. You can find these either in pill form or in foods like seeds and nuts, fish, olive oil, beans, and whole grains.
Set It Straight
Improve your posture at work—if you can. Some jobs, like those in the industrial or medical field, require lots of bending or sitting in awkward positions. But when you can, be sure to sit straight with your spine aligned and your head back (to avoid tech neck!)
Staying active is a great way to prevent chronic pain. Walking, running, and other aerobic exercises increase blood flow to your back, which replenishes nutrients and renews soft tissues. Building muscle through weight lifting strengthens and stabilizes your neck and back. And maintaining a healthy weight prevents additional strain on your joints, spine, and ligaments.
Live Your Life Pain-Free
In this blog, we covered some of the most common causes of neck and back pain. Now that you have the information you need, talk to your doctor about what treatment will work best for you. At Ethos, we want you to live your best life—pain-free. Schedule a free consultation today to see if an integrative approach is right for you!