By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Neck pain, or pain that occurs or originates in the cervical spine, is a common complaint among people of all ages. Neck strain due to everyday repetitive motions, posture while working on the computer, or an odd sleeping position is something everyone can relate to. Acute neck pain or whiplash can be caused by an injury, like a sudden fall or car crash. Chronic neck pain arises because of any one of a number of degenerative disorders affecting the upper seven discs of the spinal column. Acupuncture and other TCM treatments for neck pain and other musculoskeletal disorders have been shown to be highly effective for relief of pain and stiff neck.
A sore neck can come on quite suddenly, or it can slowly develop over months or even years. The nature and exact location of neck pain can vary widely: neck strain, spasms, neck pain and headache, neck pain right side, along one side or both sides of shoulder blade, neck pain that refers to arm/hand pain/tingling/numbness, or pain in back of head and neck. Signs and symptoms associated with neck pain may include: stiffness, immobility, general soreness, sharp, stabbing pains, and pain that radiates into the shoulder and down the arm.
Neck pain can be debilitating and get in the way of daily activities. When people seek medical care for neck pain, doctors often find it difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the stiffness and discomfort. Generally, patients are prescribed pain medications and muscle relaxers to alleviate soreness and restore some mobility until the situation resolves itself. This does not address the root cause, however, and the pain may return or worsen. In some cases, patients might be referred to PT (physical therapy) and/or a chiropractor to help strengthen the muscles, or adjust structure, and relearn habituated movement patterns.
Acupuncture provides relief of neck pain and tightness without habit-forming drugs that can cause unwanted side effects. We see many people who have tried PT and even surgery to treat neck pain but are still suffering, looking for an alternative method to address their symptoms.
In this article, we will discuss neck anatomy, how TCM views neck problems, how to treat neck pain with acupuncture, and offer some neck strengthening exercises you can do at home to help alleviate pain without side effects.
TCM View of Neck Pain and Diseases of the Cervical Spine
The neck has a big load to carry, and yet it is, in fact, the most delicate and potentially the weakest portion of the body because it connects the head to the trunk with only seven relatively small vertebrae.
The average adult’s head weighs between ten and fifteen pounds. The head, housing the brain, is arguably the most important part of the body. Many nerves and blood vessels that support fundamental functions within the head run to the rest of the body through the narrow pathway of the neck. The neck anatomy must structurally support the skull and safely house all of these crucial tissues.
The seven vertebrae that comprise the cervical spine support the major arteries that nourish the brain and all of the other important organs of the head. Bundles of nerves that send communications from the brain to the rest of the body also run along the spinal column. If the blood vessels or nerves that run through the cervical spine get twisted or blocked, it can cause compression that affects the ears, eyes, and mouth. Sometimes people may not realize that problems such as blurry vision, a burning sensation in the mouth, high or low blood pressure, tingling in the arms, tinnitus, dizziness, and headaches can all be due to deeper neck problems related to the blockage of nerve impulses or blood flow to the head.
Neck pain and headache are often signs of something deeper going on. Pain in the side of the neck and sore neck muscles are a signal to pay attention to the health of the spine.
- Nerve compression – causing sensations of pain, tingling,or numbness in the neck, shoulder or arm, decreased mobility, stiffness, muscles atrophied or spasming, can cause radiating neck and shoulder pain.
- Artery blockage – constricting blood flow, affects the sensory organs of the head, causing dizziness, lack of balance, pressure in the head, eyes fatigue, hearing loss, tinnitus, or problems with memory and cognitive function.
- Spinal cord damage – a serious injury, such as from a car accident or fall from a horse can permanently damage the spinal cord, sometimes causing partial or total paralysis.
- Bones/Joints – the vertebra is a long series of fine joints; these can degrade over time, the bones becoming misshapen, discs becoming enlarged or calcified or bulging.
- Soft tissue – the muscles supporting the cervical spine weaken, sometimes due to injury or posture. The ligaments thicken and stiffen. Over time, the alignment of the spine is compromised.
Pain in the muscles of the neck can be due to old injuries, the aftermath of working out or playing sports. Repetitive motions at work – lifting objects, bending the head forward, looking down or to one side constantly – can cause stiff neck pain, tightness, and tenderness. As we age, the muscles simply become fatigued more easily. Rest can help these mechanical problems, but lack of use can also cause more stiffness.
Facet joint syndrome occurs when the small joints of the spinal column become stiff and swollen due to inflammation. We see this condition even among young adults and teenagers. Facet joint syndrome causes a significant lack of mobility, making it hard to turn the head, get up and down from a seat, or stand without hunching forward.
Bulging discs are a chronic condition, while herniated discs are usually caused by a sudden injury to the spine.
Anterior oblique muscle syndrome typically presents with shallow breathing, emotional, a hard time turning the head, pain gets worse if the arm goes up, accompanied by numbness or tingling in the arm.
Neck pain, then, can be a symptom of any number of problems related to the neck and spine, or even the jaw, as in TMJ disorders. This is why it can be so difficult for medical doctors, even with the use of advanced diagnostic testing and equipment, to determine the exact cause of the pain.
How Acupuncture Treats Neck Pain
TCM views all health problems holistically. A qualified acupuncturist can not only treat the symptoms of neck pain and stiffness, often providing relief of sore neck and muscle spasm in neck, but will carefully consider the whole picture of symptoms and lifestyle habits that are contributing factors. A TCM practitioner will look for the root cause of neck pain and address that, so that the pain does not return again and again. An acute condition that involves neck strain and soft tissue injury will be treated differently than a chronic condition related to the vertebrae and discs.
Patients who are new to acupuncture may be surprised when their practitioner begins inserting needles, and none of them are going into the area that hurts–in this case, the neck. But acupuncture often does not work in such a direct way. To treat neck pain, a qualified acupuncturist might be working on points in the abdomen that reduce inflammation throughout the body while strengthening Qi and Yang energy.
Acupuncture treatment is sometimes enhanced by the additional use of electrical stimulation. Wide-ranging studies have shown that many people feel an immediate improvement after the very first session, with even more significant positive effects on pain and mobility accumulating after several treatments.Other TCM modalities can also be incorporated into the treatment regimen, especially forms of therapeutic massage such as Tuina, Gua Sha, Moxibustion (burning of warming herbs near acupuncture points), and Cupping (use of glass cups to create suction) may also be used to help move stagnant Qi and blood.
Acupuncture is safe, natural and has no such side effects—unlike many of the medications often used to treat pain.
TCM Herbs for Chronic Neck Pain
Chronic neck pain conditions involving radicular (radiating pain) symptoms can be alleviated by the use of specific Chinese herbal formulae. Chinese herbs, both in oral and topical formulations, have been shown in some study to be better at relieving neck pain stemming from degenerative disc disorders or cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerves or nerve damage) than NSAID type medications. Topical pain relievers such as liniment (woodlock, or Huo Luo oil) or analgesic patches can be very effective for pain relief, with no or less side effects.
Top 5 Tips for Neck Pain Relief
Besides acupuncture treatment, you can also get some stiff neck relief by improving your posture, sleeping position and by practicing neck pain exercises. Here are some of the best neck pain remedies you can achieve through self care at home.
- Acupressure Points for Neck Pain – Luo Zhen is located in the hollow on the back of the hand between the second and third knuckles. Effective for sore neck and whiplash. Gently move the head and neck to determine which side is more stiff and painful. Choose that hand, then apply gentle pressure, making small circles, pressing deeper into the tenderness, for a few minutes. Check again for improved mobility. Repeat on the other hand if necessary. GB21 – Gall Bladder meridian point, for neck pain, shoulder tension, headaches, located on the shoulder. Find by moving your finger lightly from your shoulder towards your neck until it stops and then pressing down where it is most tender.
- Improve Your Posture – The muscles of the neck must work in tandem to hold the head steady as it bends and turns in all directions. When the head is bent forward at a 45 degree angle, as it so often is these days as you look down at your devices for hours at a time, the strain of carrying the weight is increased dramatically. You may not be able to get away from this problem entirely, but becoming aware of the way you sit, stand, and tilt your head downward can help improve the situation. Set up your desk with the best ergonomics you can manage, ensuring that your screen is level with your eyes. Try holding your phone higher when scrolling. Take breaks often; look up, and gently stretch the neck to release tension.
- Exercise to Stretch and Strengthen the Neck Muscles – Flex your neck to point of gentle tension in each direction: first bending the head all the way down and forward, then all the way back (not so far as to cause discomfort), then tilting to the right side and the left side. Hold in each position for five breaths. This will help stretch the neck muscles and improve your range of motion. After you’ve been sitting at your desk for a while, take and break, stand up, clasp your hands behind your back and look over each shoulder toward your heel.
- Best Way to Sleep with Neck Pain – The correct positioning of the head and neck during your night’s sleep is key to preventing neck pain. It’s best to sleep either on your back or side. Sleeping on your belly forces your head to turn one way or another. Most important is making sure that the neck is supported by your pillow. People often prop the head up too high on multiple pillows. If you sleep on your back, you might want to use a roll-shaped cushion under your neck and then a flatter pillow under your head. Pillows that conform to the shape of the neck and head can work well for side sleepers; you might choose a feather or buckwheat-filled pillow, or one made of memory foam. Aside from positioning, the ability to get a good night’s rest is vital for healing and preventing all types of musculoskeletal pain and inflammation. If you are having trouble sleeping, your acupuncturist may help with that at the same time as treating neck pain.
- Stay Hydrated – The cartilaginous discs in the spine are made up of 80% water. As we age, we tend to lose precious water from the discs, which can contribute to Cervical disc degeneration. Drink plenty of body-temperature water throughout the day.
Pain Clinic Near Me for Neck Pain
Even though some neck pain conditions may resolve themselves, it is best to seek treatment for acute neck pain after an injury right away before it becomes something more serious. If neck pain is recurrent or chronic, don’t suffer any longer. Find the best acupuncture near me to get neck pain relief and resolve the long-standing issues that are causing your sore neck once and for all.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.