We've all used the phrase, "pain in the neck" to describe something that's annoying, and for good reason. Is there anything more annoying than a no-good knot in your neck?
When you are young, neck pain may present itself from time to time, like after sleeping the wrong way. But as you grow older, these frustrating neck aches may happen more often.
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Here, Nicholas Anastasio, MD, a board-certified physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Mercy, shares why neck discomfort is more common in old age, and ways to reduce (and possibly prevent) neck pain in the future.
1. Your Spine Undergoes Changes
Your spine contains spaces between the vertebrae filled with cartilage — a jelly-like center that acts as a cushion and shock absorber between your bones.
But as we age, that cartilage loses water (or, "dries out") and becomes brittle and weak. It can even start to crack, Dr. Anastasio says.
When this happens, your discs are less effective at shock absorption, leading to pain in your neck, he adds.
2. Your Joints Degenerate
The bones in your joints are encased in smooth, white cartilage, which allows the joints and bones to move seamlessly and without friction, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
But, "as we age, this cartilage can thin out and degenerate," Dr. Anastasio says.
When cartilage breaks down in the neck and spine joints, it may produce neck pain and stiffness, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This is called osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease.
Eighty percent of people age 55 and older show signs of osteoarthritis in X-rays, per the Cleveland Clinic.
3. You’re Prone to Nerve Problems
When you age, the discs in your spine also lose height. This narrowing of space leaves little room for your spinal nerves, causing them to get pinched, Dr. Anastasio says.
The lack of space in the spine creates compression or "pinching" of the nerves in the neck, he says. (Ouch!)
Dr. Anastasio equates this phenomenon to brake pads in a car. When brake pads break down, they'll scrape against the rotor, and your brakes won't work as effectively as they used to.
Some conditions that cause pinched nerves are spinal stenosis and herniated discs (i.e., when discs are pushed out of place), per the Cleveland Clinic. Besides pain, pinched nerves may also cause numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in other body parts like the arms and hands.
4. You Have Poor Posture
As you age, changes in posture may occur as well. You may find yourself standing less upright and becoming stooped. This can lead to a condition called kyphosis, according to the Medical University of South Carolina.
Kyphosis is a forward tilt in your upper back that can reduce your range of motion (think: you won't be able to rotate fully) and cause pain, per the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Pair these postural changes with all the repetitive strain and tension we put on our necks in the modern world, and you have a recipe for pain and stiffness.
"We spend a lot of time with our neck in a flexed posture while using computers, tablets and the omnipresent cell phone," Dr. Anastasio says. Known as tech neck, "this can lead to excess stress on the cervical discs and strain to the neck muscles," he says.
5. Your Muscles Are Less Robust
Muscle loss is a normal part of the aging process. In fact, you lose up to 5 percent of your muscle mass every decade after you turn 30, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
This is called sarcopenia, or "age-related decline in muscle mass," Dr. Anastasio says.
Unfortunately, the shrinking of muscles — and loss of strength — contributes to the rounding of the spine, per the Medical University of South Carolina. And as we know, the forward curvature of the spine can set off a domino effect that can impact the neck and produce pain.
While neck pain is more prevalent in your older years, it's not inevitable. Try these strategies to possibly prevent or mitigate neck pain in the future.
1. Exercise Daily
Following a regular fitness routine that incorporates strength training can help combat age-related muscle loss and strengthen your neck muscles, Dr. Anastasio says. (Try these essential strength-training exercises for older adults.)
2. Eat More Protein
Appropriate dietary protein intake can also help offset sarcopenia, Dr. Anastasio says. That's because protein plays a pivotal part in repairing and building lean muscle. Get started prioritizing this nutrient with these protein-packed breakfasts and high-protein sheet-pan dinners.
3. Pay Attention to Your Posture
Be mindful of maintaining an upright posture, Dr. Anastasio says. We know: easier said than done. A simple way to start is by using supportive pillows for your neck or back, he says.
You can also try stretching tight neck muscles and mobility exercises, which can help you maintain a healthy range of motion in your neck.
4. Focus on Bone Health
Healthy bones are essential to good posture. In addition to strength training, a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D can increase bone density, as well, according to the Medical University of South Carolina. The average recommended intake of calcium for adults is about 1,200 milligrams, and 20 micrograms for vitamin D, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Always talk to your doctor about the appropriate dosage of vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D.
5. Try Physical Therapy
If your neck pain persists, consult with a physical therapist or orthopedist who can assess your situation and create an individualized treatment plan to help decrease your discomfort and improve your neck function.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Articular Cartilage Restoration”
- Cleveland Clinic: “What’s Causing That Pain in Your Neck (and What Can You Do About It)?”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Osteoarthritis”
- Medical University of South Carolina: “Posture Change With Age”
- University of Maryland Medical Center: “Cervical Kyphosis”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Preserve your muscle mass”
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Daily Value on the New Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.