Don’t let neck pain and picking the right doctor be a pain in the neck

If you suffer from neck pain — the third leading cause of chronic pain in the country affecting more than 80 million Americans — understanding its causes and how to treat it is critical.

“Despite the high number of incidents of neck pain reported, getting to the root of it and determining how to best treat it still remains a mystery to many,” said Dr. Jay Chun, a neurosurgeon at Atlantic Brain and Spine. Dr. Chun, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cervical spine issues, is on a mission to educate patients.

Dr. Jay Chun, a nationally renowned neurosurgeon and cervical spine expert, reviews a patient’s films before a team consult.

The neck — called the cervical spine in the medical community — houses the spinal cord which sends messages from the brain to all parts of the body. Because of its delicate nature, treating cervical spine issues correctly is critical to well-being.

“This is why symptoms of neck pain should not be ignored. Whether you have a stiff neck or numbness and tingling that radiate down to your fingers, neck pain can signal an underlying medical issue, especially if it persists,” said Chun, who specializes in cervical spine. “Some cervical spine issues can lead to problems with walking, balance and coordination — even loss of bladder or bowel control — so it’s best to see a doctor sooner than later to avoid larger problems down the road.”

There are many causes of neck pain. They may include:

  • Degenerative Disc Disease: Usually related to aging, more than 3 million cases of deteriorating discs that lose their cushioning are diagnosed annually.
  • Muscle Strain: This may be caused by a pulled muscle, a muscle spasm or injury to the soft tissues of the neck.
  • Mechanical Neck Pain: Often a result of degenerative disc disease or arthritis in the cervical spine, this term is used because the pain comes from the mechanical parts of the cervical spine that allow us to move the head.
  • Pinched Nerve: This can be caused by a herniated disc (a tear in the surface of the disc) or a bone spur that rubs on a nerve root and causes pain, numbness and muscle weakness.
  • Spinal Stenosis: Resulting in numbness, tingling and pain in the arms, hands and legs, this is the most serious problem and is caused by bone spurs that press on the spinal cord or the nerve roots.

“Over many years, our necks are subjected to repeated stress and minor injury,” Chun said. “Add to that aging and poor posture, and it’s easy to see why so many Americans suffer from neck pain.

“For chronic pain, there may not be a quick fix or a complete cure — which is why you should see a health care professional right away and get help to slow down the degenerative process,” he said.

What kind of doctor should you see?

“There are two types of doctors that typically treat neck pain: neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons,” Chun said. “Neurosurgeons diagnose and treat disorders affecting the nervous system — the delicate and complex command, control and communication network in the body that’s made up of the brain, spine and neurovascular system. Orthopedic surgeons specialize in the musculoskeletal system comprising the bones of the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints and other connective tissue. Both can specialize in spine surgery; however, orthopedic surgeons do not deal with the neurovascular system. They often call in neurosurgeons when they encounter complications in surgery.”

Ask these questions when determining the best doctor to treat a specific issue:

  • What kinds of minimally invasive procedures do you offer?
  • How many neck surgeries have you performed?
  • What is the range of cervical care you provide?
  • What if there is a neurovascular issue?
  • Do you use the latest technologies such as image guidance, computer modeling and navigation?
  • Do you treat the spinal cord itself?
  • Do you collect data on patient outcomes and participate in the national registry that tracks results by procedure?

“Choosing the right doctor for you and your neck pain shouldn’t be a pain in the neck,” Chun said. “But, be sure to do your due diligence. You — and your neck — are way too important.”

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