The health of the neck depends on a complex interaction of muscular contractions to move and stabilize each joint in the cervical spine and properly move and position the head. If any of the muscles that surround the cervical spine become tight, weak, or uncoordinated, an excessive strain is placed on the other surrounding muscles and on the spinal column. Over time, If imbalance in the muscles and the resulting abnormal head and neck motion is allowed to continue, more severe neck conditions can eventually develop.
A variety of situations can cause tightness, weakness, and abnormal function of the neck muscles. Poor or prolonged postural strain that can occur with computer use and many desk jobs, repetitive use in certain sports, muscle imbalances, lack of stretching or strengthening, and/or a car accident (even a minor accident with little or no injury) can affect the normal function of the neck and surrounding muscles, resulting in excessive strain to the area.
Over time this strain can develop into what is known as micro-trauma. Micro-trauma is very small-scale damage that occurs in the muscles, tendons, joint capsules, and ligaments in response to small levels of strain. Initially micro-trauma is not painful, but may be perceived as a mild ache or tightness in the muscles. Although small, this damage needs to be repaired. The body responds to micro-trauma by laying down small amounts of scar tissue to repair the area.
Over time this scar tissue can build up and accumulate into adhesions. As these adhesions form, they affect the normal health and function of the muscles and related joints. In fact, they often lead to pain, tightness, stiffness, restricted joint motion, and diminished blood flow. This places even further strain on the neck muscles, which in turn leads to even more micro-trauma. A repetitive strain injury cycle is set up, causing continued adhesion formation and progressive cervical spine dysfunction. At this point, pain and tightness often become noticeable.
As the repetitive-strain-injury cycle continues, the ability of the neck muscles to meet the demands placed on them diminishes. At this point it is not uncommon for the muscles to give way and more severe and debilitating pain occurs. In fact, many patients come into our office explaining that they have neck pain but no major injury occurred. These patients almost always describe some mild pain or tightness in their neck that has been building over time.