If you think your neck pain is simply the result of built-up tension in your shoulders, think again. The anatomical region of the neck is referred to as the cervical spine. It is here that the top 7 vertebrae are stacked together to form the highest point of the spinal column. Between each vertebra are gel cushions called disks that are filled with a jelly-like substance; they help absorb shock and allow your back the flexibility it needs to bend, twist, or flex.
Upper back and neck pain are more often affected by wear and tear or damage to the vertebrae, disks, nerves, and soft tissues surrounding them. Common causes of neck pain in older adults include:
As you age, your spinal disks can become dehydrated leaving them thinner, stiffer, and less pliable than before. Sometimes, the disk between two vertebrae can rupture and the jelly-like substance inside can leak out and apply pressure to nearby nerves. A herniated cervical disk can lead to pain as well as numbness, tingling, and weakness in the shoulder, arm, or hand.
This type of degenerative arthritis in the neck, develops from abnormal wear and tear on the bones of the cervical spine and the rubbery cartilage that helps protect the joints. Cervical spondylosis is fairly common; in fact, researchers claim that cases of cervical spondylosis can be identified in the majority of adults over 50. Symptoms of this age-related condition include pain and stiffness in the neck, pain in the arms or shoulder, inability to fully bend or turn the neck, headache, and a grinding sensation when the neck is turned.
When you overdo it with a lifestyle behavior as seemingly benign as poor posture, the ensuing strain on your muscles can lead to a cascade of problems including radiating pain or aching in your neck. Craning your head forward past your shoulders to stare down at a computer screen or simply tweaking your neck trying to reach for something in an awkward position can quickly result in muscle inflammation, pain, and stiffness.
Cervical spinal stenosis
When arthritis deteriorates the joints in your spine, your body will often compensate by growing bone spurs to naturally fuse the joint and protect it from collapsing. Unfortunately, this ends up limiting the mobility of the joint and can also lead to nerve impingement as the bone spurs put pressure on the nervous structures surrounding the spine and narrow the spinal canal altogether.
While you may not experience a ton of neck discomfort and pain as a result of cervical spinal stenosis, there is a risk of injuring the spinal cord housed in the cervical spinal column. Symptoms may include loss of balance, difficulty walking, and poor hand coordination. Spinal cord damage is irreversible and can only be managed with surgery so it is critical that you consult a doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms that may indicate spinal cord and nervous system disruption.
Neck Pain Exercises for Elderly Adults
One of the most important ways to both prevent neck pain as well as treat it is to exercise. Exercise not only helps you maintain a healthy weight and prevent excess strain on the spine, but it also promotes joint fluidity and a strong back and core, all things that support spine health.
Stretching. Sitting comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, reach one hand up to grab the opposite side of your head and pull towards your shoulder. For example, you can lift your right hand up to grab the left side of your head and press it down to your right shoulder. Repeat with the opposite side and hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
Strengthen. Weight-bearing practices like dancing, yoga, and tai chi can help to strengthen the neck, core, and back muscles that support a strong spine. So can doing exercises at home like lowering your chin towards your chest, placing a hand on the back of your head, and trying to raise your head while your hand provides resistance. Repeat on the opposite side by placing a hand on your forehead and providing resistance while trying to lower your chin to your chest.
You can also treat painful neck conditions with cold therapy (i.e. ice packs) and heat therapy (i.e. heating pad), as well as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, topical analgesics, massage, acupuncture, and spinal manipulation by a chiropractor. Because older adults are more likely to develop age-related conditions that compromise the stability and structure of the spine, it is always worth consulting your doctor for a thorough examination to rule out more serious underlying issues.