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Dealing With Neck Pain and Neck Stiffness

Podcast Interview:

In today’s episode, we are speaking with Dr. Matthew Phinney. Dr. Phinney is the founder of The Chiropractor Doctors in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is committed to improving the health and vitality of his community through chiropractic and wellness care. He is originally from Ontario, Canada and he graduated Bishop’s University in Quebec and then from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa. Dr. Matthew Phinney is widely considered to be one of the top chiropractors specializing in holistic and alternative health in the country and he is also a contributing member of our national network of industry professionals.

Today we are going to talk about a very important topic: Neck Pain & Stiffness.

RC: Hello Dr. Phinney, how are you today?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: Hi Liz, I’m doing great!

RC: Thanks for being here and our first interview today is about neck pain and stiffness so I’m going to dive right in.

Question 1: Can a ‘stiff neck’ work its way out and not need intervention from a chiropractor? Is it common to see patients for neck pain?

RC: Can a stiff neck work its way out and not need intervention from a chiropractor and is it common to see patients for neck pain?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: That’s a great question, Liz. I’m glad that you asked that. It really depends on what your definition of ‘working its way out’ is. A lot of times when people will come in to our office, yes, neck pain is one of those common things. But usually it’s been one of those things that have been going off and on for a period of either months or years. So a lot of people think, “Well, when the pain goes away the problem is gone.” So typically, anytime there is some sort of pain or discomfort, it’s your body’s warning system. Your body is telling you something is not working or something is not doing what it’s supposed to do. So anytime there is pain that comes and goes, it usually means that there is some sort of physical problem either being caused by something that you are doing or something that you are not doing. So that is always a concern.

The reason why pain would typically come and go like it does or work its way out and then come back is: When you look at the nerves in the nervous system, the sensory portion or the feeling portion of a nerve really only compromises about 10% of that nerve fiber. So the remaining 90%: 45% of that goes to supply muscles so your muscles contract and they relax for you to be able to move; then the other 45% of that 90% of that nerve, that goes to your organs and glands. So your organs and glands – they are producing different functions, different chemical hormones, they determine our emotional state. That stuff is all controlled through the nervous system.

So what that really means is, you can have pressure, you can have compression on up to 90% of those nerves and not necessarily feel anything. So all of a sudden, now you’re on that 10%, that sensory, that feeling portion and you are like, “Oh my gosh, I’m in excruciating pain!” Then what happens is that pressure can back off. It can go on to say the motor portion or it can go on to the organ/gland portion and you don’t necessarily feel anything.

That’s what I would call the blessing and the curse of the spine or of the neck. Blessing in that yeah, you don’t have pain all the time but curse in that, that can be a problem that sort of comes and goes for a period of say months or years and is doing damage to your body and you’re not necessarily aware of it.

So that’s why often times things can become much worse over a period of time where we don’t do anything about them because we think, “Hey the pain’s gone. Everything must be fine now.”

RC: Okay and do you personally see a lot of patients in your office for just a common neck pain? Is that what brings them in?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: Yeah neck pain is very, very common with everything that we are doing in today’s society – the text messaging, on the phone all day long, staring down at our ipads or our notebooks or computers. All those types of activities that the majority of us are doing on a daily basis put a tremendous amount of stress and strain on our upper back and neck and that’s a recipe for pain and discomfort. Not to mention, all the other stuff that’s out there such as sports injuries, car accidents.

Yeah there are a lot of people out there that are suffering with neck pain and they are not necessarily sure what is causing the problem and if there is anything they can do to correct it. So that’s why we do get a lot of people who come in with neck pain.

Question 2: How can we avoid neck pain?

RC: My next question was going to be how can we avoid neck pain and you started tapping into that already so can you expand on ways people can avoid neck pain?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: Okay, yeah great question. There are a lot of, again, different lifestyle behaviors that can contribute to having pain in the neck. I’m going to touch on a couple of them.

One of the big ones would be sleeping position. If you are lucky enough to get 8 hours – I don’t know if you do, but if you’re getting 6, 7, 8 hours a night sleep every single night – well, that’s basically one-third of your day in one specific position.

So sleeping position can play a big role in whether or not you would have pain in your neck over a period of time. One of the things we always recommend is sleeping on your back. A lot of people out there that have neck pain or they’ve had chronic neck pain, we will find a lot of them are stomach sleepers. I don’t know about you, but if you sleep on your stomach you either have to have your head cranked and twisted all the way to the left or you have to have it twisted all the way to the right all night long. You can’t breathe through your pillow.

So if you even just sat there like we’re talking right now, Liz – you sat there and turned your head as far as it could go and you held it there for a minute, you’d probably have a pretty stiff or sore neck even after that just one minute, period. People are doing that 6, 7, 8 hours a night. So sleeping on their back is one thing that I would definitely recommend.

For the people who are sitting at a desk all day long, the height of your computer monitor, the height of your screen makes a big difference. If you’re sitting there and you are staring down at a computer screen or you’re staring way up screen again 6, 7, 8 hours a day while you’re at work all day long, that can put a tremendous amount of stress and strain biomechanically on the neck. So having that monitor height so that your eyes are level with the top two-thirds. So if you were to break the monitor up in to say three sections your eyes should be at that top two-thirds in terms of height there.

The other thing I would recommend – if you’re on the phone all day long or even your cell phone all day long, would be to use a headset so your head is not twisted or your shoulder is not stuck to your ear all day long. Again that can put a ton of stress and strain on the spine.

One of the other things we recommend is a spinal hygiene protocol. You brushed your teeth today, right, I hope. You didn’t do that because your teeth hurt, you do that because you want your teeth to last. You want a nice healthy smile and it makes sense. So the same thing. We in our office recommend – there’s a specific spinal hygiene protocol. Because just like dental hygiene, you want to take care of your teeth everyday so they last as long as you do the same thing is true with your spine.

Then the last thing would be to get your spine checked. See if there are any sort of subluxations, anything that is not working or doing what it’s supposed to do. Get it checked and if there is something going on, then that’s something that can be corrected through a gentle and specific adjustment.

RC: Okay that sounds great.

Question 3: It is known that a stiff neck can be a warning sign for a serious infection like meningitis. Is there a difference in the type of neck pain for something serious like that?

RC: Next question is a little different. It is known that a stiff neck can be a warning sign for a serious infection like meningitis; I know we hate to think about that. But for the average person is there a difference in the type of neck pain for something serious like a potential case of meningitis versus hey my neck just really hurts I just have a really stiff neck? So how would someone interpret that kind of neck pain and maybe know there might be something else going on?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: That’s,again, another great question. Meningitis, so what they are referring to with the case of say meningitis is, there are layers of connective tissue surrounding the spine and the spinal cord they are called meninges. Any time there is a structure in the body that gets inflamed they add that four letter word “itis” on the end of it and that really means inflammation of whatever it is that we are talking. So meningitis is inflammation of the meninges that are surrounding the spine. It could be either a bacterial or a viral infection.

The one that’s typically more dangerous is the bacterial type of meningitis and that’s something that you definitely want to be cautious about. There are typically other signs and symptoms that would go along with something like that. So almost always when someone has a case of say meningitis, it usually is accompanied by fever, usually something greater than say 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

The other thing is that they’ll typically have a severe headache along with that, a very severe headache like a headache that they’ve never experienced before. Another sign and symptom that it could be potentially meningitis is that they would have vomiting, so they’d be sick to their stomach. So it can mimic a migraine type headache.

They’ll also typically have with it like photophobia, light sensitivity, so they don’t want to see any light and then along with that the neck pain and stiffness.

So there’s a couple different orthopedic tests that you can do but if the neck is super stiff and sore and you have any of those other four symptoms that I just spoke about, that would be a situation where I would say go with what your gut tells you. And if you feel extremely lethargic, like you can’t move and you can’t do anything, then that would be a situation to go get it checked at say the emergency room. Just to make sure you’re erring on the side of caution.

But really, I tell people trust your instincts. Trust your internal instincts. We’ve been on this planet for thousands and millions of years. It’s not because of public policy or these rules that are set in stone. It’s that we have those instincts. So just kind of trust your gut and listen to what it’s telling you. But look out for those things, be educated as well.

RC: Okay

Question 4: Do you see benefits of neck strengthening or neck bracing for chronic neck pain?

RC: The next question I have is regarding chronic neck pain. Do you see the benefits of neck strengthening or neck bracing for somebody suffering from say chronic neck pain that won’t seem to go away?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: Yea, great question. The one thing I will comment on as far as bracing because people ask me a lot of times “Well,l what do you think about a back brace or what do you think about a orthotic or what do you think about a neck brace?” Anytime that you brace something in your body, anytime you put a brace on something, what do you think happens? Do you think your body has to work harder or do you think your body has to do less?

RC: I would say do less.

Dr. Matthew Phinney: You got it. So anytime your body is forced to do less or function less and it’s relying on some sort of brace, well, then what happens is over time, it will get weaker. And the weaker it is, the less strength you have in that area -typically, the less function that you have and the more you open something up for again continued chronic pain and discomfort.

So as far as neck strengthening goes, yeah, that is a good thing to do but there’s a specific way that you want to go about doing it. That’s what I was referring to earlier when I spoke about a spinal hygiene type protocol.

So you definitely want to have somebody sort of walking you through that and giving you the specific exercises that you need for your specific structure. These are all things that we would do in our office. Because, yeah, once we fix a problem, once we’ve corrected something, we want to make sure that it doesn’t come back and the stability portion of care is a big part of that. So, without a doubt in my mind, I think neck strength and stability is great but we typically start with mobility first. So we have a mobility-stability type spinal hygiene protocol but that’s all based on specifically what’s going on with their body structure and function.

RC: Okay that sounds great.

Question 5: Can a headache be the culprit for neck pain?

RC: My last question for you is can a headache be the culprit for neck pain? So say you start with a headache and then all of a sudden your neck starts to hurt. Is that common, is that a true statement can you talk about that?

Dr. Matthew Phinney: Yeah great question. That can happen. More often than not, what we’ll typically see is people that have neck pain will also have with that an associated headache. So the reason why is, when you look at the cervical spine, when you look at the neck, there are seven moveable bones in the neck. Every single human, every single animal, every single mammal- they all have seven bones. Seven cervical vertebrae in their neck and exit coming off of the core between every two bones you have the spinal nerves and they are the ones that circulate throughout the entire body. But the ones in the neck are the ones that control all of the function of the head – so the eyes, the ears, the nose, the brain, the brain stem, muscles of the face and the scalp. And what can happen with some of those things that we talked about earlier, that something can shift or twist out of alignment and it can put pressure on those nerves. Now you may not necessarily feel pain right away but that could manifest or it could show up as something like the headache.

One of the easiest ways to tell is: If you sit up straight and you take your thumbs and you put them right into the back of the base of the skull (right where your skull comes into your neck) and you poke in there and if it feels stiff or it feels tender or sore, that usually is an indication that there’s muscle spasm there. Muscle spasm is usually the result of pressure on that motor for the muscle component of the nerve and that can over time typically cause things like headaches to develop.

And so most people when they get a headache, they reach for some sort of medication,right, an Advil or an Ibuprofen or even some of the stronger stuff but it’s not necessarily correcting the problem because about 90% of the headaches that people are dealing with are mechanical, they’re structural in nature. The remaining 10%, yeah there’s a dietary component, could be a psychological component but 9 times out of 10, they have a structural issue. It’s a nervous system issue and that’s why we have the results that we do at actually getting in and correcting the cause of that problem so that the headache goes away and doesn’t come back.

RC: Okay I think this is really good information. There are a lot of people out there that suffer neck pain, headaches, things like that. So this information has been really helping, thank you so much Dr. Phinney.

Dr. Matthew Phinney: My pleasure. I appreciate you guys having us on.

Listen to the podcast here.

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This article was reviewed and approved by Dr. Matthew Phinney.

If you enjoyed this article, check out these other articles about Neck Pain:
Whiplash and Treatment for Causes of Whiplash
5 Tips to Avoid Neck Pain
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