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Understanding What’s Behind the Pain in the Left Side of the Neck

Understanding the causes of left-sided neck pain is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment. Left-sided neck pain can result from several factors, including musculoskeletal issues, nerve compression, trauma, inflammation, or underlying medical conditions. 

Muscular strains, poor posture, and stress are common causes of neck pain. Additionally, conditions such as cervical disc herniation, cervical spinal stenosis, and osteoarthritis can lead to left-sided neck pain.

According to global estimates, neck pain affects a significant portion of the population. In the United States alone, it has been reported that about 10% to 15% of individuals experience neck pain at any given time (1). Neck pain can occur in people of all ages, although it tends to be more prevalent in adults.

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Why Is There Pain In The Left Side Of Your Neck?

The left side of the neck contains various structures that play important roles in supporting and facilitating the functions of the head, neck, and upper body. Some of the key structures present in the left side of the neck include muscles like the sternocleidomastoid, scalene muscles, trapezius, levator scapulae, and platysma.

The cervical spine, composed of seven vertebrae (C1-C7), is located in the neck region. The left side of the cervical spine houses the left-sided facet joints, which allow for movement and stability of the neck.

Numerous nerves pass through or innervate the left side of the neck. This includes the cervical nerves, which branch out from the spinal cord and provide sensory and motor innervation to various areas of the neck, shoulders, arms, and upper back.

Important blood vessels traverse the left side of the neck, including the common carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, face, and neck, and the internal jugular vein, which drains blood from the brain and neck.

Lymph nodes play a crucial role in the immune system and are tiny bead-like structures. They are present throughout the neck, including the left side, and help filter lymphatic fluid and fight off infections.

Salivary glands, such as the parotid gland and submandibular gland, are responsible for producing saliva and are located in the neck area.

The trachea, also known as the windpipe, and the esophagus, which carry food and liquids to the stomach, pass through the neck region.

Several risk factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing neck pain or make existing neck pain more pronounced. These risk factors include poor posture for extended periods which can strain the muscles, ligaments, and discs in the neck, and occupational factors that involve repetitive or prolonged neck movements, heavy lifting, or prolonged sitting in a non-ergonomic position.

Examples include jobs in construction, computer programming, or desk work. Other risk factors include: 

  • age-related changes in the spine, such as cervical disc degeneration and osteoarthritis,
  • previous neck injuries and trauma, such as whiplash from a car accident or sports-related injuries, 
  • a sedentary lifestyle that weakens the muscles that support the neck, 
  • emotional stress and tension which causes muscle tightness, 
  • obesity which puts additional strain on the neck and spine, 
  • smoking which is associated with increased neck pain and decreased tissue healing due to its detrimental effects on blood circulation and tissue health and 
  • certain medication conditions rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and spinal conditions.

What Does The Pain In The Left Side Of The Neck Feel Like?

The symptoms associated with pain in the left side of the neck can vary depending on the underlying cause. Here are some common signs that individuals may experience:

  • Neck pain: The primary symptom is pain localized to the left side of the neck. The pain may be sharp, stabbing, dull, or achy. It can range from mild discomfort to severe pain, depending on the cause and severity.
  • Stiffness: Many people with neck pain may also experience stiffness in the affected area. This can make it difficult to move the neck comfortably, resulting in a reduced range of motion.
  • Radiating pain: In some cases, the pain may radiate from the left side of the neck to other areas, such as the shoulder, arm, or even the head. This can occur when nerves in the neck are affected or compressed.
  • Muscle spasms: Pain in the neck can be accompanied by muscle spasms, which are involuntary contractions of the muscles. These spasms can further contribute to pain and discomfort.
  • Headaches: Neck pain, particularly if it originates from the upper part of the neck, can trigger headaches, including tension headaches or cervicogenic headaches. These headaches often manifest as pain at the base of the skull or behind the eyes.
  • Numbness or tingling: If a nerve in the neck is compressed or irritated, it can lead to sensations of numbness or tingling that may extend into the left arm or hand.
  • Difficulty in performing daily activities: Severe neck pain can interfere with regular activities, such as turning the head, driving, or even sleeping comfortably.

Possible Conditions Causing the Pain

Pain in the left side of the neck can have various causes. They are explained below.

Muscle Tension

One of the most common causes of neck pain is muscle strain or sprain, often due to poor posture, overuse of the neck muscles, or sudden movements. This can result in localized pain on the left side of the neck.

Whiplash

Sudden jerking or whipping movements of the neck, typically caused by car accidents, can result in whiplash. This can lead to left-sided neck pain along with other symptoms like stiffness, headaches, and restricted range of motion.

Acute Torticollis

Involuntary muscle contractions or spasms can occur in the neck muscles, leading to localized pain on the left side of the neck. This condition is also known as torticollis.

Cervical Radiculopathy

Compression or irritation of nerves in the neck, such as the cervical nerve roots or the brachial plexus, can cause radiating pain that extends from the neck into the left arm or shoulder. 

Conditions like cervical radiculopathy or thoracic outlet syndrome may be responsible for such nerve-related pain.

Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Cervical spinal stenosis is a condition characterized by the narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical (neck) region. This narrowing can compress the spinal cord or nerve roots, leading to various symptoms, including left-sided neck pain.

Inflammation

Infections of the structures in the neck, such as the lymph nodes, tonsils, or salivary glands, can cause pain and discomfort on the left side of the neck. Inflammatory conditions like cervical lymphadenitis or pharyngitis may also contribute to neck pain.

Cervical Fracture

A cervical fracture is a serious injury that involves a fracture or break in one or more of the seven cervical vertebrae in the neck. A cervical fracture can cause left-sided neck pain due to damage to the spinal bones, ligaments, discs, or nerves in the neck. 

The injury can cause immediate pain in the area of the fracture, which may be felt on the left side of the neck if the fracture is localized to that region. The pain can also be due to nerve compression or injury, soft tissue damage, muscle spasms, and guarding where the muscles in the neck may go into spasms as a protective mechanism to stabilize the injured area.

Cervical Disk Degeneration

Cervical disc degeneration refers to the gradual wear and tear of the discs located between the vertebrae in the neck region. This degeneration can contribute to left-sided neck pain through disc herniation, nerve compression, facet joint inflammation, and loss of disc height resulting in spinal instability, muscle tension, and spasms of the surrounding neck muscles. 

Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. While neck pain is a common symptom of meningitis, it is not specifically localized to the left side. Neck pain associated with meningitis typically affects the entire neck and is often described as a stiff neck.

It occurs due to inflammation of the meninges which leads to irritation of the nerve fibers in the area. This irritation can result in neck pain that is usually stiff and worsens with movement. The inflammatory process also causes increased blood flow and swelling of the meninges. This leads to general neck discomfort and pain.

Herniated Cervical Disc

A herniated cervical disc occurs when the soft inner core of a disc in the neck protrudes or bulges outward through a weakened or damaged outer layer. This can lead to left-sided neck pain through nerve compression and inflammation of the surrounding tissues.

Congenital Anomalies

Congenital anomalies refer to structural abnormalities that are present at birth. While congenital anomalies typically do not directly cause left-sided neck pain, certain specific conditions may be associated with symptoms that can lead to neck pain on the left side. Here are a few examples:

  • Klippel-Feil Syndrome: This rare congenital condition is characterized by the fusion or improper segmentation of two or more cervical vertebrae in the neck. This abnormal fusion can lead to restricted movement and instability in the cervical spine, potentially causing pain and stiffness in the neck that can be felt on the left side.
  • Congenital Cervical Rib: In some individuals, an additional rib can develop in the neck region, known as a cervical rib. This extra rib can cause compression of nerves and blood vessels in the area, leading to symptoms such as neck pain, shoulder pain, arm pain, and numbness or tingling in the left upper limb.
  • Congenital Torticollis: Also known as a wry neck, congenital torticollis is characterized by the abnormal positioning or tightness of neck muscles, resulting in the head tilting to one side and the neck being rotated. While the pain associated with congenital torticollis is typically not localized to one side of the neck, it can cause discomfort and muscle tension that may be felt more prominently on the left side.

Spinal Tumor

A spinal tumor refers to an abnormal growth of cells within the spinal column.

While a spinal tumor can cause various symptoms depending on its location and size, it can potentially contribute to left-sided neck pain through the compression of nerves, spinal instability, inflammation, and swelling, and may even cause vertebral fractures in advanced cases after weakening them. 

Diagnostic Process To Treat Symptoms

The diagnostic process for pain in the left side of the neck typically involves a combination of medical history assessment, physical examination, and possibly further diagnostic tests. Here’s an overview of the steps that may be involved:

  • Medical History: Your healthcare provider will begin by asking you questions about your symptoms, such as the location, duration, and intensity of the pain, any triggers or aggravating factors, and any accompanying symptoms you may be experiencing. They will also inquire about your medical history, previous injuries, and any relevant lifestyle factors.
  • Physical Examination: A physical examination allows the healthcare provider to assess the neck, check for any visible signs of injury or inflammation, and evaluate the range of motion and tenderness. They may also examine other parts of your body, such as your shoulders and upper back, to identify any related issues.
  • Neurological Examination: A neurological examination may be performed to assess nerve function. This may involve testing reflexes, muscle strength, sensation, and coordination in the neck, arms, and hands.
  • Diagnostic Tests: Depending on the findings from the history and physical examination, your healthcare provider may order additional diagnostic tests to aid in the diagnosis. These tests may include:
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans can provide detailed images of the cervical spine, discs, and surrounding structures, helping to identify issues such as herniated discs, spinal abnormalities, or bone spurs.
  • Electromyography (EMG): This test measures the electrical activity in the muscles and nerves. It can help identify if nerve compression or damage is contributing to neck pain.
  • Blood Tests: In certain cases, blood tests may be ordered to check for signs of infection, inflammation, or specific medical conditions that could be causing neck pain.
  • Other Specialized Tests: Depending on the suspected cause, your healthcare provider may recommend additional tests or consultations with specialists, such as an otolaryngologist, rheumatologist, or cardiologist, to further evaluate specific conditions or rule out other potential causes.

Common Medical Treatment Options 

The choice of medical treatment options for pain in the left side of the neck depends on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan. Here are some common medical treatment options that may be considered:

Pain Relief Medications

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may be recommended to help reduce pain and inflammation associated with neck pain. In some cases, prescription-strength pain medications may be prescribed for more severe pain.

If the neck pain is caused by muscle spasms or tension, muscle relaxants may be prescribed to help relax the muscles and alleviate pain.

Topical creams or ointments containing analgesics or anti-inflammatory agents, such as menthol or capsaicin, can be applied directly to the painful area for localized relief.

Physical Therapy

A healthcare provider may refer you to a physical therapist who can design a customized exercise and stretching program to improve neck strength, flexibility, and posture. They may also use techniques such as massage, heat therapy, or electrical stimulation to alleviate pain and promote healing.

Corticosteroid Injections

In cases of severe pain or inflammation, corticosteroid injections may be administered directly into the affected area of the neck. These injections can help reduce inflammation and provide temporary relief.  While it can give patients temporary relief, these steroids are known to be very toxic to your nerves, joints, tendons and ligaments.

Use with caution and do not have more than 1 or 2 injections to help avoid the risks of corticosteroids!

Neck Brace

In some cases, wearing a neck collar or brace may be recommended to provide support and restrict movement, allowing the neck muscles and tissues to heal. These are not designed to be worn full time, to avoid weakening neck muscles, only wear for limited time-frame.

Ortho-Biologics

Over the past 2 decades, our clinic has been specializing in regenerative medicine for spinal conditions.  Many times, platelet rich plasma injections can be very useful.  These injections help reduce inflammation while strengthening the area.

Our physicians are the top 1% of all interventionists in the world, they have the skills to evaluate you and precisely inject into these critical areas of your spine with 100% accuracy. Research shows that PRP is a better alternative as compared to corticosteroids (2-18) plus can also give you the best chance to correct the underlying issue and avoid the high risk surgeries below.

Surgery

The specific surgical procedures used for the treatment of pain in the left side of the neck will depend on the underlying cause of the pain. 

Surgery is typically considered a treatment option when conservative measures have not provided sufficient relief or when there is a structural problem that must be addressed surgically. Here are a few examples of surgical procedures that may be performed for certain causes of neck pain:

  • Cervical Fusion: In cases of instability or certain degenerative conditions, a cervical fusion may be performed. This procedure involves joining two or more vertebrae together using bone grafts, metal plates, or screws to stabilize the spine and reduce pain.
  • Foraminotomy: If there is nerve compression in the foramen (the opening through which nerves exit the spinal cord), a foraminotomy may be performed. This procedure involves removing a portion of the bony structures around the foramen to create more space for the nerves and alleviate compression.
  • Artificial Disc Replacement: Instead of a fusion procedure, artificial disc replacement may be considered for certain conditions. This involves removing the damaged disc and replacing it with an artificial disc device, aiming to preserve motion and relieve pain.
  • Decompression Surgery: In some cases, such as spinal stenosis or foraminal narrowing, decompression surgery may be performed. This procedure involves removing or trimming the structures that are compressing the nerves, thereby reducing pain and restoring normal nerve function.

Home Remedies You Can Try For The Pain

While it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment of neck pain, some home remedies may help alleviate mild to moderate pain in the left side of the neck. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Rest and Gentle Neck Exercises: Allow your neck to rest and avoid activities that may exacerbate the pain. However, gentle neck exercises and stretches prescribed by a physical therapist or healthcare professional can help improve flexibility and reduce muscle tension.
  • Heat or Cold Therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation. You can use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or warm towel for heat therapy, or apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin cloth for cold therapy. Alternate between heat and cold therapy to see which works best for you.
  • Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Follow the recommended dosage instructions and consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or if you are taking other medications.
  • Neck Support Pillows: Using a supportive pillow designed specifically for neck support can help maintain proper alignment while sleeping and reduce strain on the neck muscles.
  • Posture Improvement: Maintaining good posture throughout the day can help prevent and alleviate neck pain. Be mindful of your posture while sitting, standing, and using electronic devices, and make necessary adjustments to ensure proper alignment of the spine.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Stress and anxiety can worsen neck pain. Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or gentle yoga can help reduce stress and promote relaxation, potentially alleviating neck pain.
  • Massage or Self-Massage: Gentle massage or self-massage techniques can help relieve muscle tension and improve blood circulation in the neck area. You can use your fingertips or a massage ball to apply gentle pressure and knead the muscles.
  • Ergonomic Adjustments: Ensure that your workstation, chair, and computer setup are ergonomically designed to support good posture and reduce strain on the neck. Adjust the height and positioning of your desk, chair, and computer screen accordingly.

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Keep Your Neck Healthy And Strong

You can prevent neck pain by incorporating many healthy practices like stress management, postural techniques, regular exercise, staying hydrated, and staying mobile. 

Remember, if you experience persistent or severe neck pain or have any concerns about your neck health, it’s important to consult one our our musculoskeletal experts. Once they evaluate you, can come up with a comprehensive plan to help get you out of pain!

Want to know more about the pain in the left side of your neck? Talk to us now.

References

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