Most of us can recall one or more occasions when the day got off to a rough start because of a stiff neck. This can be explained by the fact that neck pain ranks among the most common types of pain you can get. Statistics vary on just how many people encounter neck pain, but recent evidence suggests that its lifetime prevalence is between 20—70% and that 10—20% of individuals are affected by it at any given time. As we’ll show you, the likelihood of having neck pain also increases as you get older, and different conditions are more common at certain ages.
There are seven bones (vertebrae) in your neck, which are collectively referred to as the cervical spine. These vertebrae are called C1—C7, with C1 being the first vertebra at the base of the skull and C7 being the lowest vertebra around the chest area. Providing further support for these vertebrae are intervertebral discs, which sit between each bone to cushion them and absorb shock during impact. The cervical spine also consists of numerous joints that allow for an impressive range of motion that you can notice any time you nod, turn, or rotate the head in any direction. Unfortunately, this wide range of motion is one of the main reasons neck pain is so prevalent.
Sprains and sprains are most likely to occur in children and young adults
Throughout childhood and adolescence, the chances of experiencing neck pain are fairly low, but this is not to say that this age group is immune. If neck pain does occur in children, it is most likely due to strains or sprain of the muscles or ligaments in the neck. The reason is that although neck muscles and ligaments are flexible at these ages, they can still get pushed beyond their limits. When this does happen, it is typically the result of maintaining bad postures for extended periods of time or sleeping on the neck wrong. Patients with neck strains and sprains will probably complain of pain and discomfort in the back, side, or front of the neck that limits their movement and activity.
Age—related changes begin playing a role in middle age
Neck strains and sprains remain fairly common later in life, but several other neck conditions also enter the fold. The primary reason is that certain unavoidable, age—related changes begin to occur in the cervical spine. For example, the structures that make up the neck become weaker, the intervertebral discs lose some of their height, and the joints in the neck adapt to other changes in the body. Eventually, these changes make the structures of the neck slightly less effective, and this can often lead to the development of other neck conditions. Some of the most common disorders include:
- Osteoarthritis: this condition results from the ends of bones in the neck losing protective cartilage
- Spondylosis: a general term used to describe any pain related to age—related changes in the spine
- Herniated disc: this occurs when some of the jelly—like substance in an intervertebral disc protrudes out, which may cause pain and other symptoms that radiate from the neck
These types of issues typically develop between the ages of 40–60 but can be seen even earlier in certain individuals. Symptoms also range significantly, as some people experience regular pain and physical limitations, while others may have signs of age—related changes but fail to notice any impairments.
Similar issues plus additional complications may await in older age
For adults over the age of 65, age—related changes continue to occur and may begin to become more advanced in some cases. This means that conditions like osteoarthritis and spondylosis are even more likely and may be more severe for some individuals. Other conditions like spinal stenosis and osteoporosis are also more common in older age and can therefore be added to the list of possible neck problems. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the structures within it, while osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle. Other mobility limitations could make neck—related issues even more of an impairment for the elderly, but all of these problems are still treatable.
What’s important to understand is that while there is nothing that can be done to stop the aging process, there are a number of changes you can make to your everyday life that can significantly reduce your chances of experiencing neck pain. We will discuss these tips in our next newsletter.