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Neck pain is neck pain, right?

Free Press Article- September 18th, 2013 April L. Schulte-Barclay

Nearly all of us have experienced that nagging neck pain that keeps us from living our day to our fullest. You know the feeling; trying to get dressed in the morning and finding putting on your socks is a nearly impossible task or backing out of the driveway and finding yourself holding your breath trying to twist around to see behind you.

For some folks, neck pain is so chronic and debilitating that they experience symptoms like burning and tingling down the arm and hand, loss of function, and having seemingly permanent limited range of motion.

If you see a Western doctor, and soft tissue problems such as wry neck or neck strain are ruled out, you are likely to undergo an imaging study to look for arthritis, degenerative disc disease, or other possible pathology in the spine. Depending on findings, you may be referred to a physical therapist and pain medications and interventions such as steroid injections or surgery may be recommended.

Quite often I see patients who have undergone traditional Western medicine treatments and their symptoms still persist. Cases like this ask us to dig deeper and put the puzzle pieces of our body, mind, and spirit together to solve the problem. By merging Western medicine with complementary therapies like Chinese medicine and acupuncture, solving the health mysteries of the body becomes an achievable goal.

So what is often lurking deeper in the system causing the neck to become “locked up” and painful? Below are contributing factors I commonly see clinically:

Years of tension caused by inadvertently placing stress in the neck muscles, upper back, and shoulders.

Ergonomic problems at a work station.

Compensation from structural misalignment down the line, such as a lower back, knee or ankle problem.

A nutritional deficiency may be present that is preventing the body to heal itself

Food sensitivities may be causing an insidious inflammatory process showing up mostly in joints like the neck.

Wind from a fan or window may cause a neck to seize up in the night.

Acute emotional stress.

A combination of the above.

Let’s consider an example of a patient I am seeing now who was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease in her cervical spine. The patient presented with limited range of motion and neck pain. After three acupuncture treatments, her range of motion improved by 50% and her neck pain had dissipated significantly. I knew we could do better than that, so I referred her to Kirk Apt, GSI, for some bodywork to loosen the connective tissue.

Kirk found the patient’s tissue to be dry and a bit unresponsive. When the patient returned to me, I gave her some Chinese herbs to “nourish blood” and we repeated acupuncture treatment. After a few weeks on the herbs, the patient’s tissue was more malleable and her body responded very well to the bodywork, restoring her range of motion to about 80%. However, soon after, she returned to my session complaining of a resurgence of her neck pain.

I asked the patient: “Has something happened in your life that was unusually stressful?”  The patient initially answered,”no.” As the session continued and we were chatting, a light-bulb moment occurred for the patient. The patient was telling me a story about a disagreement she had with a co-worker. I asked the patient when her neck pain worsened in relation to that disagreement, and BINGO. It was clear to the patient that the neck pain reoccurred during that disagreement.

For this patient, her neck can be considered a barometer for how she is doing in general. Her neck will likely act up when something in her life is out of balance, whether it be emotionally, physically or nutritionally. While the degenerative disc disease did not go away, she has learned that it is manageable and is recognizing potential triggers for her pain. With that knowledge along with having treatment options that tie together nutrition, physical alignment and soft tissue health, this patient has a well-rounded plan in place to manage her chronic pain.

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