Chronic non-specific neck pain is the most common form of neck pain. While the inclusion of the word “non-specific” implies the cause of neck pain is unknown, the term really describes neck pain without an underlying disease or pathology—like an infection or osteoporotic fracture. Thus, chronic non-specific neck pain is better understood as neck pain arising from postural or mechanical causes of the neck that has persisted for at least three months.
When a patient initially consults with a doctor of chiropractic regarding their chronic neck pain, they’ll complete a healthy history. If any red flags are present that suggest a more serious and potentially life-threatening condition—sudden weight loss, fever, severe pain, loss of coordination, chest pain, shortness of breath, thunderclap headache, etc.—the patient may immediately be referred to the emergency department or a specialist.
The doctor of chiropractic will then perform a physical examination to identify the primary pain generator(s) by using palpation, orthopedic tests, and range of motion (often, limited in one particular direction) while tracing the pain—especially if it radiates into an arm or down into the shoulder blade region. The doctor of chiropractic will also assess the upper extremity nerves for motor (muscle strength and reflexes) and sensory function (skin senses to pin prick, scratch).
Perhaps the most common cause of non-specific neck pain is injury to the facet joints that sit at the rear of the spinal vertebrae. However, the patient’s neck pain may also be caused by the disks, muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are involved in supporting the head and putting the neck through its full range of motion. Patients with chronic neck pain are also likely to have postural defects—such as forward head posture—that place abnormal strain on the tissues of the neck to support the head.
Once the potential pain generators are identified, the doctor of chiropractic will formulate a treatment plan that may include spinal manipulation, mobilization, manual release techniques, trigger point therapy, neck-specific exercises, and postural retraining—all with the goal of reducing neck pain and disability so that the patient can resume their everyday work and life activities.