Neck and Arm Pain

1-322Neck pain is a common problem that may be accompanied by shoulder, arm, and/or hand pain. The neck — or cervical part of the spinal column is flexible and capable of moving in many directions (eg, rotate, nod). Cervical anatomy is quite different from other spinal regions. Vertebral bodies are the smaller; and despite stabilizing structures (eg, ligaments), the cervical spine absorbs and distributes forces incurred during motion while supporting the weight of the head.

Neck pain, with or without arm pain is a signal that something is wrong. Cervical nerves and the spinal cord are the conduits through which messages are sent to and from the brain. The nerve sends a sensory (feeling) message via the spinal cord to the brain. The brain interprets the message, and pain is perceived. Neurosurgeons understand the complexities of the cervical spine, and can diagnose where pain is coming from; its place of origin.

Types of Pain, Other Symptoms

There are many different terms used to describe the characteristics of pain. These include:

  • Acute pain is often described sudden, sharp, and/or severe. It is of short duration.
  • Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting longer than 6 months. Patients have described their chronic pain as occurring daily, constant, deep, aching, dull, and/or burning.
  • Episodic pain comes and goes. It may not occur every day, and may be associated with activity.
  • Radicular pain is called radiculopathy. When arm pain is caused by a neck problem, the neurosurgeon may refer to it as a cervical radiculopathy.

Other symptoms may include abnormal sensations such as numbness, tingling, or weakness.

Potential Causes of Neck and Arm Pain

Whiplash is a very common cause of neck and arm pain. It is a hyperflexion (too far forward) and hyperextension (too far backward) injury caused when the head and neck are whipped forward and backward. This type of injury usually occurs suddenly, and it doesn’t take a great deal of force to cause a whiplash.

Intervertebral disc problems are another source of neck pain. A disc bulge or herniation may compress a spinal nerve root (eg, pinched nerve) in the neck. Degenerative disc disease is a wear-and-tear disorder that contributes to disc deterioration. Of course, the process of normal aging and related cellular changes can cause discs to dry out, become misshaped, or flatten (eg, lose normal height). Even genetics plays a role in the development of disc-related problems. These anatomical changes can cause nerve compression.

Disc degeneration also may result in bone spurs (called osteophytes) or spinal stenosis. Both conditions can compress a spinal nerve root. Spinal stenosis occurs when a nerve passageway (called neuroforamen) narrows. Stenosis can affect the space around the spinal cord too.

Less common causes of neck pain include:

  • Development disorders
  • Infections
  • Tumors

When to See a Doctor

While neck pain may resolve within a few days without medical care, there are some guidelines to keep in mind, especially if neck pain is accompanied with arm pain.

Seek medical care if …

  • Neck pain starts as a result of a fall, car accident, or other trauma
  • Neck pain suddenly or progressively worsens
  • Severe headache with or without a fever occurs
  • Difficulty with balance and/or walking develops
  • Bladder or bowel impairment or loss of control

Charleston Brain and Spine’s neurosurgeons specialize in treating neck pain with or without arm pain, as well as many other spinal disorders. We can identify the cause of your pain and will only recommend spine surgery if it is needed. Our practice offers non-operative therapies, including referrals to pain management.