The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.
By Natalie Dicou
Maybe you slept on it wrong. Or perhaps it happened on the ski slopes. Or maybe it started during that flag football game at the park when your crazy uncle suddenly went full NFL.
All you know is your neck hurts and you can’t turn your head from side to side. Is it a routine kink — which happens when a muscle that is supposed to be long tightens into a ball — or something worse?
That’s what Georgia Stewart wanted to know when the athletic 74-year-old from Sun Valley, Idaho began experiencing neck pain so severe that favorite activities like tennis, biking and swimming became impossible.
“In addition to the pain in the side and back on my neck I’d been feeling for months, I was getting pain that was running up the back of my head and on top of my head,” Stewart said. “It was really very, very uncomfortable to sleep, to move — everything was just uncomfortable.”
A few red flags pop up in Stewart’s description of her neck problem: the duration and location of her pain.
“A routine muscle spasm or muscle tightness in your neck shouldn’t last longer than two weeks,” said Erica Bisson, M.D., M.P.H., a neurosurgeon with University of Utah Health Care. “If it lasts beyond two weeks, it’s time to see a specialist.”
In kinks, pain is felt at the sides and back of neck, just like in Stewart’s case, and sometimes extends to the upper back region because all those muscles work in a coordinated fashion, Bisson said. But pain shooting toward the top of her head? That’s a warning sign.
“Any time you have spine pain associated with numbness, tingling, weakness, and loss of dexterity and balance, that needs attention more quickly,” Bisson said.
If it’s just a run-of-the-mill muscle spasm, Bisson recommends alternating heat and cold. Each patient is different, so feel out what works best for you, but people usually do best when they switch between heat and ice every 5-15 minutes, Bisson said, noting ice works to soothe inflammation and heat eases stiffness.
When we’re in pain, the last thing we want to do is move around, but remaining still is not the way to feel better, Bisson explained. She recommends staying active and stretching your neck muscles gently by turning your head to your right, left, up and down, holding each position for 30-90 seconds. Stick to these four movements, and avoid rolling your neck or stretching so your ear touches your shoulder.
We often can’t pinpoint exactly what led to a neck kink.
“It can happen because of overexertion or moving the neck quickly,” Bisson said. “Stress and anxiety can cause the muscles to spasm too because some people get uptight when they’re stressed and they hold their musculature tightly, while others feel the physical effects of stress with an upset stomach.”
After months of discomfort, Stewart clearly didn’t have a mere kink. Even yoga, which had previously brought her relief, now only worsened her pain. But was it a spinal cord disease, disc herniation, bone spurs, a tumor, a nerve condition?
An MRI, CAT scan and other tests revealed Stewart had degenerative arthritis — A.K.A. osteoarthritis — in her C1 and C2 vertebrae, the uppermost vertebrae located directly under the skull. More than likely, aging caused the condition.
In October 2014, Bisson fused Stewart’s C1 and C2 vertebrae. The surgery was a success. Stewart won’t be able to ski, go horseback riding or do other bouncy activities for a full year following her surgery, but Bisson cleared her to return to the pool and tennis court.
“I’ve been out [playing tennis] four times this summer,” Stewart said. “I’m careful and never play more than 20-30 minutes. So far so good. The University of Utah has kept close tabs on me. I’ve been hitting the marks that they wanted and expected.”
Because of the fused bones, Stewart will have limited rotation in her neck for the rest of her life, but the pain that levied an emotional and psychological toll for so long is gone.
“Her long-term prognosis is excellent,” Bisson said. “Her active lifestyle will really help her going forward.”
Stewart’s case was unique, but aches and pains in the spine and elsewhere, affect everyone as we age, Bisson said.
“I call it the gray hair of our spine, whether that’s arthritis of the spine or the discs start to degenerate,” Bisson said. “My best advice is to maintain an active lifestyle and to learn how to incorporate stretching and strengthening routines into our lives.”
Concerned about enduring spinal pain? Call 801-587-2225