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Neck and lower back pain

How does the neck work?

Most of us will, at some time in our life, suffer from pain in the region of the neck, shoulders and occasionally referred down into our arms.

The cervical spine (neck) is made up of seven bones (vertebrae) which are separated by spongy discs known as intervertebral discs. They’re linked together by facet joints which, together with the neck muscles, allow you to move your head in any direction.

At the level of each disc, nerve roots branch out from the spinal cord. Impulses travel along these nerves, sending sensations such as touch and pain to the brain. The bones help to support the head and protect the spinal cord.

How does the back work?

Similarly to the neck, the back structure is built around the bones of the spinal column. The lumbar spine consists of 5 (vertebrae) sitting one on top of another.

It sits on the pelvis and the bones of the spine are connected by discs at the front and facet joints at the back. The discs in the whole of the spine help to absorb loads on the spine and, with the facet joints, give the spinal column its flexibility.

Causes of neck and back pain

Neck and lower back pain are common but most cases aren’t caused by a serious problem. Your pain should ease withintwo weeks and you should recover over approximately a 4–6 week period.

Often it's not possible to identify the cause of back pain. This is generally called "non-specific" back pain.

Sometimes the pain may be a result of an injury such as a sprain or strain, but often it occurs for no apparent reason. It is rarely caused by anything serious.

Occasionally back pain can be due to a medical condition such as:

  • a prolapsed disc - where a disc in the spine can press on a nearby nerve
  • sciatica - irritation of the nerve that runs from the pelvis to the feet

These conditions tend to cause additional symptoms– such as numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation– and they're treated differently to non-specific back pain.

What can be done to help?

Exercise is very important to;

  • ease stiffness and pain
  • build up muscle strength and stamina
  • improve your flexibility and general fitness

See below links for leaflets and examples of common exercises for neck/lower back pain;

General advice

  • Try to avoid sitting for long periods of time- this causes overstretching of ligaments, muscles and joints.
  • When sitting, try to sit in an upright supportive chair with a small pillow or rolled up towel in the small of the back. This will help support the curve of the back and neck.
  • If reading or sewing, try to avoid looking down at your lap- this will help to prevent overstretching of the soft tissue. Try to support the weight of your arms by resting your elbows on cushions.
  • Advice on home heat treatment- wrap an underfilled hot water bottle (not too hot) in a towel and apply this to the painful area for ten minutes.

Stop what you are doing every five to ten minutes to shrug and pull back your shoulders to relieve any tension.

Driving

  • Fix your car seat in a comfortable upright position and ensure that you are neither too close nor too far from the pedals
  • Put a small pillow or rolled up towel in the curve of the back.
  • When stopped at traffic lights, shrug and pull your shoulders back to relieve tension
  • On a long journey, get out of the car every hour to stretch.

Sleeping/lying down

  • It is difficult to maintain a good position of the neck once you are asleep but using the right sort and number of pillows will certainly help
  • The main function of the pillow is to support the natural hollow in the contour of the neck between head and shoulder girdle, without tilting the head or lifting up.
  • Ideally, your pillow should be made of feathers, with foam chips as a second choice.
  • You can use a rolled up towel 3” diameter inside your pillow case to support your neck.