Neck pain is a very common complaint, affecting at least 14% of Americans per year. A sore neck or neck stiffness is sometimes a mechanical problem, arising from poor posture or repetitive motions. In other cases, pain in the side of the neck or a neck pain headache can signal a deeper problem with the structure of the cervical spine or the complex system of nerves and blood vessels that run through the neck. TCM and acupuncture have been shown to be effective for treating neck pain and musculoskeletal disorders of all kinds.
Because neck strain can stem from a wide variety of physical and behavioral causes, medical doctors often have a hard time pinpointing the specific source of the sore neck. Most conventional treatments for neck pain involve the prescription of pain relievers or muscle relaxers. These drugs may help alleviate some of the discomfort, but they do not address the problems that may be developing in the cervical spine.
The neck is part of the long, flexible connected row of vertebrae known as the spinal column. Technically called the cervical spine, the neck consists of seven vertebrae interspersed with discs that provide cushioning, absorb shock and provide for free movement. Each vertebra has a hollow tube that contains the spinal cord and bundles of nerves which run along the entire spinal column, creating stimulus and sensation throughout the body. The skeletal spine is then supported by a complex of muscles and ligaments that attach to the bones.
In front of the cervical spine, the neck also houses the esophagus, trachea (windpipe), the thyroid gland, and many blood vessels. The relatively narrow neck structure holds up the head, which weighs an average of about eleven pounds. The neck is a delicate marvel of design with a heavy load to carry, day in and day out.
Neck Pain Causes
While neck pain is a common complaint, it is often very difficult for doctors to diagnose the specific causes of neck pain. Even sophisticated modern diagnostic testing techniques and equipment do not necessarily reveal exactly what is causing the painful sensations. Causes of neck pain include:
- Sleeping position
- Overuse/Repetitive motions
- Trauma from an Injury
- Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease
- Cervical Herniated Disc
- Cervical Osteoarthritis
- Cervical Radiculopathy
- Myofascial pain syndrome
In some cases, neck pain is being caused by tension or neck strain in the soft tissues (muscles and ligaments) in or surrounding the neck. This type of musculoskeletal pain might stem from the positioning of the neck while working or sleeping or from some sudden injury to the tissues. Chronic stress that creates a buildup of tension in the tissues can also cause neck spasms. Torticollis refers to the phenomenon of waking up with a stiff neck that feels like it is twisted to one side. These types of neck pain may resolve themselves in a few days or weeks without medical treatment, but they can cause significant pain and loss of mobility.
A headache at the base of the skull, sometimes called a “neck headache,” or cervicogenic headache, is a secondary headache disorder caused by a problem in one or more of the neck joints. Researchers believe that up to 20% of headaches are actually caused by problems in the cervical spine, usually one of the top three neck joints: the Atlanto-occipital joint (O-C1), the Atlanto-axial joint (C1/2), or the C2/3 cervical spine joints.
Sharp pains around the back of the head and neck can also be caused by irritated nerves or a pinched nerve. Sometimes a malformation of the bone of one of the vertebra, or the bulging of a disc can put pressure on the nerve bundles and cause radiating neck and shoulder pain.
Degenerative conditions that affect the vertebrae and cartilaginous discs can cause severe and/or chronic neck pain (lasting more than three months). For patients with chronic neck pain, doctors usually prescribe pain medications or muscle relaxers and may refer patients to physical therapy (PT). Drugs may or may not alleviate pain symptoms, and depending on the situation, PT may or may not address the root cause of the problem. This is why many people suffering from acute neck pain or chronic neck pain turn to alternative providers for help. Acupuncture has been shown to help provide pain relief and restore movement after as little as one treatment.
TCM and Acupuncture for Neck Pain
When you consult with an acupuncture provider regarding neck pain, she will take a detailed history and make a diagnosis very specific to the range of symptoms you are experiencing, as well as your underlying constitution. Even mechanical problems having to do with the musculoskeletal system of the body are viewed as manifestations of pathogens from both internal and external sources.
According to TCM, Bi Syndromes create obstructions in the flow of Qi (life force energy) and blood throughout the body. Bi Syndromes correspond to what conventional medicine refers to as rheumatological disorders. Rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibrositis would fall under this category, and can all be the root causes of stiff neck, sore neck, and swelling in the cervical joints. Bi Syndromes are considered to be caused by the pathogens of Heat, Wind, Dampness and/or Heat. In some cases, the pathogenic factor is coming from an Internal source; in others, from an External source. Bi Syndromes cause blockages in the pathways within the body, causing pain. Different Bi Syndromes will manifest as sensations of soreness, aches, swelling, numbness, or burning. Sometimes these symptoms appear particularly in the neck area. TCM treats Bi Syndromes through acupuncture and herbs with the aim of moving the blood and balancing the Qi, dispelling wind, and clearing dampness.
Acupuncture for Whiplash Neck Injuries
When an accident such as a car crash occurs, objects and bodies collide with great force and speed, the head and neck sway forward, then snap back. Even a seemingly minor fall or “fender bender” can have lasting consequences. A soft tissue injury that is often simply called “whiplash” can actually be a painful symphony of problems: fractures of the vertebrae, herniations of the spinal discs, torn ligaments, strained muscles and tendons. Other symptoms arise due to nerve damage and loss of mobility: stiffness, limited mobility, headache, numbness, tingling, along with sympathetic emotional problems.
The trauma of even a “minor” sudden injury creates blood stagnation—“stuck energy” within the body. An x-ray or MRI may not show this, but you can feel the effects: possibly fatigue, foggy-headedness, headache, dizziness, and even long-term depression.
Acupuncture is a natural and highly effective way to treat all types of injuries. Acupuncture will help to reduce swelling and inflammation of tissues, while unblocking the stagnation of Qi and blood and regenerating energy so that the body can return to proper function.
Comprehensive Pain Management with Acupuncture and TCM
Acupuncture helps both acute and chronic injuries. The sooner you can begin treatment after an accident, the better your recovery will be. However, even those suffering from the lingering effects of an old injury can benefit from treatment. Not only can acupuncture treatment reduce the pain you’re feeling, but it will improve your overall health so that you have the power to heal.
Your practitioner may also recommend herbs, changes in diet, stretches and other exercises to work in conjunction with acupuncture treatment. These adjunct therapies help you regain your health and prevent future problems. By working together with your acupuncturist, you can resolve your neck pain and create more optimal health.