There’s a reason why the term “pain in the neck” is used to describe an annoying or bothersome person: Neck pain is annoying and bothersome, too. The thing is, while some neck pain starts in your neck, other painful symptoms can begin in your shoulders. Likewise, some shoulder pain can originate in your neck. To get the right care, you need to know what’s causing your pain. Here’s how to tell the difference between neck and shoulder pain.
The connection between shoulder and neck pain
Your neck bones form your cervical spine, the uppermost part of your spinal column. The spinal column extends from your neck all the way down to your lower back, forming a protective tunnel for your nerves. All the nerves in your body travel through your spinal column. At specific points along your spine, the nerves exit the spinal column and travel to other parts of your body.
In your neck, some of the nerves travel to your shoulders and upper back. When those nerves are irritated, you can feel pain and other symptoms in your shoulders, even though the source of the irritation is in your neck.
Your neck and shoulder also “share” some of the same muscles, tendons and ligaments. If you strain or irritate the muscles in your neck, you might have pain in your shoulder, too. And, if you irritate a tendon in your shoulder, it just might cause a little neck pain. In fact, the neck and shoulder are so interconnected, the area has earned its own special nickname: schneck.
Neck pain vs. shoulder pain: Know the symptoms
Even though the neck and shoulder are closely connected, there are ways to figure out where your pain is coming from. Pain that originates in your shoulder typically:
- Radiates into your upper arm
- Gets worse when you stretch your arms over your head or reach behind your back
- Feels worse when lifting objects
- Is worse at night, especially when lying on your side
- Is more of a dull, persistent ache
- Feels better after resting your arm
On the other hand, pain that starts in your neck often causes these symptoms:
- Pain that feels like an electrical shock, sometimes radiating down your arm
- Pain that gets worse when you twist or move your neck
- Pain that’s not relieved by rest, but may be relieved with support
- Pain close to the side or base of your neck
These are just general guidelines; both neck and shoulder pain may occur in different ways. Still, it’s important to keep track of your symptoms to help Dr. Van Thiel determine what’s causing them.
Common causes of shoulder and neck pain
Nerve irritation and compression cause a lot of neck pain. Carrying heavy bags and spending hours hunched over computers can irritate the nerves in your neck, and so can falls and car accidents. Degenerative diseases like arthritis and spinal stenosis are other common culprits. Even something as simple as sleeping on an unsupportive mattress can cause chronic pain in your neck.
Shoulders are a bit different. A lot of shoulder pain involves the rotator cuff, a ring of cartilage that keeps your shoulder stable. Frozen shoulder is another common cause of pain, caused by chronic inflammation. And, like your neck, your shoulder can also develop arthritis, either in the main joint or where your shoulder meets your neck (AC arthritis).
Although all these issues can cause pain, they each involve different structures. That means they each need a different type of treatment in order for you to feel better. The only way to know for sure what’s causing your pain is to schedule an office visit with Dr. Van Thiel. During your office visit, he’ll perform a thorough exam to help identify the source and cause of your pain. Depending on your needs, he may order X-rays and other types of diagnostic imaging as well. Then, he’ll develop a plan of care optimized for your needs.
Get the right treatment for neck and shoulder pain
Persistent or chronic pain in your neck or shoulder need to be medically evaluated. Without a doctor’s care, your symptoms can become a lot worse. Dr. Geoffrey Van Thiel offers advanced options for neck and shoulder pain relief, helping patients from all over Wisconsin and Illinois including Rockford, Elgin, Huntley, Dekalb, Crystal Lake, Barrington, McHenry, Beloit and Algonquin. To find out what’s causing your painful symptoms, schedule an appointment with Dr. Van Thiel today.