The muscles of the neck are responsible for the movement and stability of the head, neck, shoulders, cervical spine, and upper torso. The neck muscles support a variety of everyday activities, including eating, breathing, and making facial expressions.
An injury or condition involving the neck muscles may cause pain, stiffness, or inflammation.
Such an injury or condition might make it difficult for the neck to move and function correctly, which can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
Knowing the functions of the neck’s major muscle groups can help you keep your neck healthy, identify injuries, and locate painful areas. With the help of a certified physician, an appropriate diagnosis that identifies the problem will ensure that optimal treatments are prescribed to relieve symptoms and improve your well-being.
Types of Muscles In The Neck
The anatomy of the neck is complex, consisting of a total of 26 muscles that are used in our day-to-day lives. The neck also has many tendons (connecting muscle to bone) and ligaments (connecting bone to bone) and includes the cervical spinal column and vertebrae.
The muscles of the neck can be divided into three main groups:
The anterior muscles stretch along the front (anterior) of your neck. These are the superficial, suprahyoid, infrahyoid, and anterior vertebral muscle groups.
The superficial muscles allow the neck to move at all angles through flexion (forward), extension (backward), and rotational movement. They also help with movements of the jaw and lower portions of the face.
The suprahyoid and infrahyoid muscle groups help with daily tasks, such as speaking and swallowing, by mobilizing the jaw and other neck bones.
The group of anterior vertebral muscles are located deep within the front of the neck, close to the cervical spine (cerebral vertebral column). These assist with the neck’s forward and downward motion (flexion). These muscles can also be called the longus colli and they help maintain posture and prevent excess hyperextension.
The posterior muscles stretch along the back (posterior) of the neck and include the splenius, suboccipital, and transversopinalis muscle groups.
The splenius muscles are close to the skin’s surface (superficial), and when contracted or relaxed, they enable the neck to mobilize forward, backward, or side-to-side.
The suboccipital muscles are also involved in the neck’s ability to move forward, down, backward, or rotate.
The deepest posterior muscles are the transversopinalis muscles, which extend along the cervical spine and down into the upper torso. They help bend the neck forward or side-to-side, and are very important in stabilizing the spine and maintaining good posture.
The lateral (side) muscles are the scalene muscles. The scalene muscles are made up of four separate muscles that stretch diagonally down either side of the cervical spinal column and join at the two upper ribs. Also known as the prevertebral muscles, the scalenes help the neck flex side-to-side, stabilize the cervical spine, and help to lift the rib cage during deep breathing.
Symptoms of Disorders Affecting Neck Muscles
Pain, stiffness, and persistent headaches are among the most common symptoms that can occur from an injury or disorder involving the muscles of the neck. Symptoms will often appear after an identifiable injury, such as from whiplash or direct trauma, and heal over a few weeks.
However, as the neck is a highly-mobile structure and consistently supports the weight of the head, a chronic (long-standing) neck disorder may develop over time. This can impact the neck’s muscles, nerves, or bones (cerebral vertebral discs) and cause persistent neck pain or discomfort.
Experiencing neck pain, stiffness, or other uncomfortable symptoms for longer than a month may indicate a more serious underlying condition.
Pain in the neck can vary from mild, moderate, or severe and it can be described as:
- Aching or throbbing
- Pinching or sharp
A strained neck muscle may cause acute and sudden neck pain, often described as ‘sharp’ or ‘tender’. This is usually caused by a direct injury such as whiplash, poor posture, many hours sitting at a computer, or sleeping in awkward positions.
Additionally, chronic neck pain is often described as a constant aching or throbbing pain, which can then pinch, radiate, or spasm when performing certain activities. Chronic pain typically develops over time as a result of degenerative changes, chronic instability or weakness, overuse, or years of poor neck health.
Being under a lot of stress also increases the chance of neck pain and problems, especially if the stress is long-lasting. The most common conditions that result in chronic neck discomfort include myelopathy, cervical stenosis, and slipped cervical discs.
Often accompanied by pain, stiffness restricts the neck’s range of motion and can also result in chronic fatigue or tiredness.
The most common cause of acute and unexpected neck stiffness is tight or strained muscles, typically caused by an injury to the posterior or lateral muscles.
Chronic neck stiffness could be serious and may indicate inflammation, degeneration (wear and tear), or damage to the neck’s structure. Conditions such as slipped cervical discs, cervical spondylosis, or arthritis can cause chronic neck stiffness.
Some more serious and less common conditions that may cause stiffness are benign growths, malignancy (cancer), or infection (meningitis).
Headaches can be a symptom of both acute and chronic neck disorders, and are defined as ‘tension headaches’ or ‘cervicogenic headaches’. Headaches are commonly caused by cervical spine degeneration, inflammatory disorders in the neck, or strain or damage to the posterior neck muscles.
Tension headaches commonly manifest as a radiating, aching, or throbbing pain up the back of the neck into the head, occasionally involving the shoulder and trapezius muscles.
Cervicogenic headaches, on the other hand, usually affect only one side of the head and may cause pain behind the eyes.
A headache caused by neck problems can sometimes lead to a more severe headache, more commonly known as a migraine. Migraine pain can be extremely painful and crippling. It can also cause light sensitivity or even visual abnormalities (auras).
Maintaining Healthy Neck Muscles
A healthy neck promotes neck muscles that are stronger and more stable, which then provides better spine alignment and head support. A strong and healthy neck can help prevent injuries, delay age-related changes, and reduce the aggravation of existing or chronic conditions.
Good neck health can be supported by maintaining good posture, regular activity, and relaxing practices. Consider making some of the following adjustments to keep your neck in good health:
Ergonomics and Posture
Improving ergonomics within the home and workplace encourages natural neck positions and promotes good posture. Having desks and chairs set up in such a way that screens are at eye level helps with bad posture.
Additionally, ensuring that the arms are properly supported helps to avoid awkward neck positions and keeps the shoulders from shifting too far forward. Aim to avoid sitting for long periods, and ease neck stiffness by going for a walk or doing some light exercises or stretching.
At home, consider a high-quality mattress and pillow that best suit your needs and body shape to prevent sleeping in awkward positions.
Being under significant amounts of stress or experiencing chronic anxiety can cause tension and exhaustion to many of the muscles in the neck and shoulders. Improving your overall well-being and prioritizing stress management will encourage the neck muscles to relax, which can reduce the risk of muscle strains and chronic neck disorders.
There are a variety of relaxing activities that may reduce stress-related tension. Find an activity that serves you, such as deep breathing, meditation, spending time in nature, or doing a favorite hobby.
Try some light exercise that best suits your activity levels, such as walking, swimming, or yoga. Beginning with low-impact exercises will best prepare the neck and body for regular movement. Movement helps lubricate the neck joints and prevents constant muscle tension. Movement is also a healthy way to improve mood and reduce stress.
Conditions That May Affect Neck Muscles
Disorders that affect the neck are most commonly caused by direct injury, age-related changes, or overuse. If the muscles of the neck are placed under acute or chronic strain and are not kept strong and healthy, the neck’s structures become more susceptible to damage over time.
Some examples of conditions that affect the neck include:
- Cervical Spondylosis
Cervical Spondylosis occurs when age-related changes such as wear and tear, inflammation, or overuse cause deterioration of the neck’s vertebral discs (cervical spine).
The muscles of the neck are then put under increased tension to support the cervical spine. Cervical spondylosis can cause pain or stiffness in the muscles, nerves, or bones of the neck. This structural wear and tear can lead to numerous other neck disorders.
- Cervical Stenosis
Cervical stenosis is where the neck’s spinal canal becomes very narrow over time. This can cause the spinal cord and other nerve roots to become compressed. Cervical stenosis can be painful and dangerous if the spinal cord is affected. Nerve damage and neurological or autonomic disorders of the nervous system may occur.
Myelopathy is the medical term for the neurological symptoms brought on by a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord may be damaged if it is compressed from conditions such as cervical stenosis, inflammation, or slipped discs.
From the point of spinal cord compression downward, acute symptoms that affect the nervous system may appear. This can include severe pain down the neck, shoulders, and arms, as well as a loss of sensation or movement.
- Slipped Discs
Also called a ‘herniated disc’, a slipped disc occurs when the shock-absorbing layer between the cervical discs bulge outwards. This irritates or compresses surrounding muscles and nerves, which can cause radiating pain to the head or down into the shoulders or arms.
Whiplash usually occurs in motor vehicle accidents or contact sports and happens when the neck is suddenly jerked in an unexpected direction. This may cause pain, swelling, or tightness as the muscles are torn or damaged. A whiplash injury may heal over a few weeks; however, it may potentially cause long-term damage to the neck.
The sudden movement from whiplash overextends and stretches the neck’s muscles and ligaments. As the neck muscles become over-stretched, they cannot support the cervical spine, resulting in instability. An unstable cervical spine increases the risk of slipped discs or nerve damage.
When to Seek Help for Neck Muscle Conditions
If your neck pain is accompanied by the following symptoms, it is important to see a doctor immediately to rule out more serious health conditions:
- Fever, nausea, vomiting
- Neck stiffness accompanied by severe headaches
- Tingling or weakness of the arms
- Fainting or seizures
Indeed, if you are worried about any uncomfortable discomfort in the neck, it is best to consult a certified physician. If neck pain or discomfort persists longer than a week, worsens with movement, or if the neck loses its full range of motion, it is advised to have a physician or other expert assess you.
These symptoms could indicate an underlying condition that may need initial or ongoing treatments.
Treatments for Muscles In The Neck
Standard treatments aim to temporarily relieve the symptoms associated with neck disorders and other conditions that may affect the muscles of the neck.
Drugs such as pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and anti-inflammatories are commonly prescribed and are often paired with physical therapy, corrective exercises, or complementary therapies such as chiropractic and acupuncture.
These treatments work best for neck issues that are mild or acute and can temporarily relieve discomfort and inflammation while improving strength and stability.
However, chronic and long-term neck disorders can be more difficult to treat. Most standard treatments cannot heal the underlying condition of a chronic neck disorder, causing a cycle of recurring symptoms and exhausting treatment options.
Most pharmaceutical drugs cannot be used long-term because they may cause unpleasant side effects such as gastric upset and liver or renal damage. Additionally, alternative therapies such as massage or acupuncture are likely to only provide short-term relief.
Therefore, identifying the underlying cause and location of chronic neck pain and discomfort will better help guide more appropriate treatments that focus on healing the condition while aiming for long-term symptom relief.
- Pain relievers and NSAIDs
Prescription and over-the-counter medications, such as pain relievers or anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), aim to temporarily relieve the symptoms of some neck disorders. A doctor may recommend ibuprofen or naproxen sodium for mild to moderate pain and inflammation.
A muscle relaxant such as cyclobenzaprine or neuropathic pain reliever such as gabapentin may also be prescribed for more severe symptoms like muscle spasms or a pinched nerve in the neck.
- Physical Therapy
Physical therapy involves strength and conditioning exercises. These focus on strengthening the neck’s muscles, improving stability and mobility whilst helping to correct poor posture. Physical therapy exercises should be specific to the condition. To ensure movements are performed safely and to prevent further damage, it is important to see a certified physical therapist.
Injection of steroids for neck pain are more commonly placed directly into the neck by a specialist. This helps to alleviate the inflammation that causes chronic neck discomfort and can be effective in the short term.
However, steroids often need repeat doses and unfortunately come with negative side effects, including the weakening of surrounding muscles and tendons. Some studies show that steroids may also reduce the presence of the body’s natural healing factors, such as stem cells.
Massaging the muscles of the neck may help to loosen tension and increase blood flow to the area. Massage therapy may help relieve pain and stiffness in the neck temporarily, as well as reduce headaches or nerve pain. Receiving a massage for therapeutic purposes is typically advised for acute or short-term neck disorders.
Although massage may help with temporary symptom relief, it is not recommended or tolerated in all chronic neck conditions.
For many who prefer to avoid using prescription medications, acupuncture is a popular alternative therapy since it may provide similar benefits. Acupuncture uses many small needles to provide a pressure stimulus, stimulating increased blood flow that can reduce pain and inflammation.
However, studies show that acupuncture is not a long-term treatment and therapies can vary wildly depending on the provider. Nonetheless, acupuncture can be beneficial as a stress-relieving practice since it may stimulate the release of calming endorphins like serotonin and dopamine.
Advanced Medical Interventions for Neck Muscles
The latest advancements in treating conditions that affect the muscles of the neck include Platelet-Rich Plasma therapy (PRP), Bone marrow concentrate containing stem cells, and prolotherapy. These advanced alternative therapies help regenerate, heal, and strengthen damaged tissues.
The Centeno-Shultz clinic explores all the below advanced medical treatment options for patients who suffer from debilitating, chronic neck disorders.
Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy (PRP)
PRP therapy involves drawing a blood sample, concentrating the platelet component, and reinjecting this concentrated solution into the affected area of the neck. The concentrated solution of PRP is rich in your body’s natural healing and regenerative factors.
Bone Marrow Concentrate (containing stem cells)
Regenexx is similar to PRP, however, it utilizes a sample of bone marrow, which is rich in stem cells. These stem cells are isolated, concentrated, and injected into the neck’s damaged tissues. Due to stem cells’ ability to restore damaged tissues, this may aid in healing and strengthening.
Prolotherapy is a procedure that involves injecting a solution of hypertonic dextrose and anesthetic directly into the damaged ligaments of the neck. This injected solution aims to better stimulate the body’s natural healing response that may have been lacking.
Ultimately, these advanced medical therapies promote the healing and restoration of the injured tissues in the neck. This, therefore, promotes long-lasting relief from persistent neck discomfort by recovering normal function and slowing any further deterioration.
Centeno-Schultz uses ultrasound and x-ray guidance for these therapies to provide the best results. This improves visualization of the neck’s muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves, all of which may benefit from these treatments.
Treat Your Neck Muscles Right
The neck is a complex part of the body and is susceptible to injury, strain, or chronic disorders. Long-term wear and tear, stress, poor posture, and inflammation can cause the structures and muscles of the neck to deteriorate.
Chronic neck disorders will cause painful symptoms that may affect your quality of life. As a result, maintaining a strong and healthy neck through activities such as frequent movement, relaxation techniques, and good posture may help to prevent the development of debilitating neck disorders.
Early intervention and employing the most suitable treatments can prevent chronic neck disorders from worsening, and help to encourage long-term symptom relief.
The team at Centeno-Schultz can provide comprehensive assessments, professional advice, and advanced treatment options for chronic neck discomfort. Understanding that neck pain can be worrying and debilitating, Centeno-Schultz aims to find the cause of the problem and provide treatments that work best for you.