Let’s say you hurt your neck in a car accident. We know that even really severe injuries heal within two to three months. So why does research show that more than 50% of people continue to have neck pain well beyond the time it takes to heal?
When you injure something, it is normal for your body to protect the area by not using it. Kind of like how we would put a cast or splint on a bad wrist sprain or fracture. The idea is to stop moving the area so the injured tissues can knit back together and heal.
Problem: Think about how your arm looks when the cast comes off. In only a few short weeks, it has shrivelled up and is very stiff. We call this disuse atrophy. You have to use your body, otherwise, it quickly weakens and seizes up. Remember the phrase “Use it or lose it”? The same thing happens in the neck.
Once you have pain, your body subconsciously avoids using the area. Lack of use sets the stage for weakness (Disuse atrophy). If your neck is weak, it is vulnerable to future injury. Common sense tells us that if you are weaker than you’re supposed to be, it won’t take as much stress or strain to cause further injury and pain. It also means that those weak muscles have to work that much harder just to carry out normal, daily activities such as supporting your head against gravity. Muscles that are working harder fatigue faster and become painful. Think about how your arms and shoulders feel if you have been out doing yard work all day.
The Vicious Cycle
This is where it gets tricky. If you are in pain, your body protects the area by subconsciously not letting you use it properly. Lack of use promotes more weakness. Weakness results in reduced ability to function, which means it takes less activity to create pain. More pain reinforces the body’s protection mechanism so you use the area less and less over time. We call this a deconditioning cycle.
The Deconditioning Cycle
The longer you have pain, the less it becomes about trying to figure out what tissue or tissues are causing the pain and the more it becomes about diagnosing how your body has compensated for the original injury.
Simply trying to get back to normal activities often doesn’t work because as your body compensates, other areas come under additional strain and you may experience new problems. Kind of a chain reaction situation.
How would I know if my neck is weak?
This simple test on the neck machine (Multicervical Unit or MCU) will diagnose neck strength and mobility. The neck machine looks scary, but it isn’t. It doesn’t do anything to you. It only measures what you can do. This test takes thirty minutes where we measure your neck strength and mobility and compare that to normal.
Just think, in only thirty minutes, you can find out if undiagnosed neck weakness may be causing your ongoing neck pain and headaches.