Many people experience neck and back discomfort at sometime in their lives. Problems can occur suddenly after an accident or injury, or may occur as the result of a slow, gradual process due to lack of exercise or poor posture. Incorrect posture throws the head forward and puts a tremendous amount of stress on the muscles in the back of the neck and upper shoulders. Muscles in this position maintain a constant state of contraction, resulting in injury and subsequent discomfort.
Poor sleeping habits, poor work habits, and tension can all contribute to this problem. While tension is not often the primary cause of neck pain, it can certainly worsen pain and make you more prone to injury or symptoms. Failure to exercise opposing muscle groups can also result in neck and shoulder pain. The imbalance of muscle strength can cause chronic or sporadic tension and tightness in these areas.
Some other specific conditions that can lead to muscle deterioration and pain include a sedentary lifestyle and general lack of muscular tone. A healthy, pain-free neck also depends on the condition of your upper back. Because the neck and upper back share the same muscles, the strength and flexibility of the shoulders and upper back muscles are important for keeping the neck balanced.
Pain is also generated when muscles go into spasm. While such a spasm may occur as a protective reflex, it intensifies discomfort by reducing circulation and setting up an inflammatory response. Stress of any kind, physical or emotional, and toxicity may cause spasms in underexercised muscles. Lastly, pressure or "pinching" of the nerves in the spine can cause severe pain that can radiate (travel) down the arms. Significant pain requires evaluation by a doctor, and may require visiting more than one in the search for a solution.
Impingement of bone or disk material on a cervical nerve root can cause neck pain which radiates into the arm, weakness of arm and shoulder muscles, and numbness. The most common cervical radiculopathy is C6-7 which may cause neck/arm pain, weakness of the triceps, and numbness in the middle fingers. The C5-6 root tends to cause numbness in the thumb and index finger in association with deltoid and biceps weakness. The C7-8 root may cause numbness in the ring and little fingers in association with decreased grip strength or fine coordination of the fingers. If the symptoms are mild, no diagnostic testing may be necessary. If severe, an MRI scan of the neck and/or an EMG are helpful in confirming the diagnosis. Conservative therapy consists of warm compresses, cervical collar, physical therapy and occasionally traction. Surgery may be performed to decompress the nerve root by a neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon.