We throw out the phrase “pain in the neck” without really thinking about what it means. Sure, some literal neck pains are transient and don’t represent a serious health risk. In other cases, however, neck pain can be a sign of a medical disorder that may require treatment.
These five head, neck and spine disorders all adversely impact quality of life. Fortunately, all can be treated or rectified through various interventions, including minimally invasive surgery.
Cervical myelopathy describes damage (compressive) to the cervical, or neck, portion of the spine — between the base of the skull and the seventh vertebral bone. This damage can have many different causes, including:
- Bone spurs
- Dislocation or neck fracture
- Traumatic injury due to a car crash or other impact
- Autoimmune diseases, such as transverse myelitis or multiple sclerosis
Risk factors include an active job or lifestyle that presents a heightened chance of spinal injury, history of bone cancer, history of back or general bone problems and congenital conditions (such as a narrow spinal canal). Surgical intervention is an acceptable treatment option in certain cases. In others, conservative measures, such as pain management, may be appropriate.
Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t usually associated with serious disorders of the head, neck or spine, but it’s actually a major cause of neck pain and can lead to additional problems. As an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints, including those in the neck and base of the head. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause swelling and other joint issues that adversely impact neck mobility, function and comfort. In certain circumstances, advanced rheumatoid arthritis can even impact the spine directly, chiefly through chronic inflammation. Treatment typically involves a combination of over-the-counter and prescription steroids, NSAIDs and other medications.
A Chiari malformation is a protrusion of the cerebellum, a key part of the brain, through the opening of the occipital bone. This presents a number of serious risks, such as pressure on the brainstem or spinal cord, that can adversely impact sensation, temperature control, vital processes and other body functions. It may also result in hydrocephalus, or the accumulation of spinal fluid around the brain. Hydrocephalus increases pressure on the brain, a potentially dangerous condition.
Basilar invagination is an acquired or congenital condition that results in an inward bending of the base of the skull due to an upward migration of the second cervical vertebral bone. This increases pressure on the brain stem and other parts of the brain, causing confusion, dizziness and other neurological symptoms in addition to chronic headaches and neck pain. Surgery is recommended in cases involving neurological symptoms.
Degenerative Disc Disorders
The discs that separate the vertebral bones are prone to a host of environmental, hormonal and chemical stresses. Over time, they tend to degrade, becoming less efficient at holding cervical bones in their proper place. Depending on the severity of the problem, aggressive (surgical) or conservative (medication and physical therapy) interventions may be recommended.
If you suffer from any of these disorders, or know someone who does, it’s advisable to consult a medical professional with experience in these matters — typically a neurosurgeon or neurologist.