Neck and Back Pain: A Merck Manual of Patient Symptoms podcast
Neck pain and back pain are among the most common reasons for physician visits. This discussion covers neck pain involving the posterior neck (not pain limited to the anterior neck) and does not cover most major traumatic injuries (eg, fractures, dislocations, subluxations).
Depending on the cause, neck or back pain may be accompanied by neurologic symptoms.
If a nerve root is affected, pain may radiate distally along the distribution of that root (called radicular pain or, in the low back, sciatica). Strength, sensation, and reflexes of the area innervated by that root may be impaired.
|Symptoms of Common Radiculopathies by Cord Level
Pain in the trapezius ridge and tip of the shoulder, often radiating to the thumb, with paresthesias and sensory impairment in the same areas
Weakness of biceps
Decreased biceps brachii and brachioradialis reflexes
Pain in the shoulder blade and axilla, radiating to the middle finger
Weakness of triceps
Decreased triceps brachii reflex
Bandlike dysesthesias around the thorax
Pain in the buttock, posterior lateral thigh, calf, and foot
Footdrop with weakness of the anterior tibial, posterior tibial, and peroneal muscles
Sensory loss over the shin and dorsal foot
Pain along the posterior aspect of the leg and buttock
Weakness of the medial gastrocnemius muscle with impaired ankle plantar flexion
Loss of ankle jerk
Sensory loss over the lateral calf and foot
If the spinal cord is affected, strength, sensation, and reflexes may be impaired at the affected spinal cord level and all levels below (called segmental neurologic deficits).
If the cauda equina is affected, segmental deficits develop in the lumbosacral region, typically with loss of bowel and bladder function, loss of perianal sensation, erectile dysfunction, urinary retention, and loss of rectal tone and sphincter (eg, bulbocavernosus, anal wink) reflexes.
Any painful disorder of the spine may also cause reflex tightening (spasm) of paraspinal muscles, which can be excruciating.
Most neck and back pain is caused by disorders of the spine. Fibromyalgia (see Bursa, Muscle, and Tendon Disorders: Fibromyalgia) is also a common cause and may be superimposed on a chronic primary spinal disorder. Occasionally, pain is referred from extraspinal disorders (particularly vascular, GI, or GU disorders). Some uncommon causes—spinal and extraspinal—are serious.
Most spinal disorders are mechanical. Only a few involve infection, inflammation, or cancer (considered nonmechanical).
Most mechanical spine disorders that cause neck or back pain involve a nonspecific mechanical derangement:
Only about 15% involve specific structural lesions that clearly cause the symptoms, primarily the following:
In the other mechanical disorders, there are no specific lesions, or the findings (eg, disk bulging or degeneration, osteophytes, spondylolysis, congenital facet abnormalities) are common among people without neck or back pain, and thus are questionable as the etiology of pain. However, etiology of back pain, particularly if mechanical, is often multifactorial, with an underlying disorder exacerbated by fatigue, physical deconditioning, and sometimes psychosocial stress or psychiatric abnormality. Thus, identifying a single cause is often difficult or impossible. Neck and back pain are sometimes attributed to myofascial pain syndrome (see Temporomandibular Disorders: Myofascial Pain Syndrome); however, some experts consider that syndrome to be part of another disorder (such as fibromyalgia) rather than a primary disorder.
Serious uncommon causes:
Serious causes may require timely treatment to prevent disability or death.
Serious extraspinal disorders include the following:
Serious spinal disorders include the following:
Mechanical spine disorders can be serious if they compress the spinal nerve roots or, particularly, the spinal cord. Spinal cord compression may result from disorders such as tumors and spinal epidural abscess or hematoma.
Other uncommon causes:
Neck or back pain can result from many other disorders, such as Paget disease of bone, torticollis, thoracic outlet syndrome, temporomandibular joint syndrome, herpes zoster, retroperitoneal fibrosis, and spondyloarthropathies (ankylosing spondylitis most often, but also enteropathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, and undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy).
Because the cause is often multifactorial, a definitive diagnosis cannot be established in many patients. However, clinicians should determine the following if possible:
History of present illness should include quality, onset, duration, severity, location, radiation, and time course of pain, as well as modifying factors such as rest, activity, changes in position, weight bearing, and time of day (eg, at night, when awakening). Accompanying symptoms to note include stiffness, numbness, paresthesias, weakness, urinary retention, and incontinence.
Review of systems should note symptoms suggesting a cause, including fever, sweats, and chills (infection); weight loss and poor appetite (infection or cancer); fatigue, depressive symptoms, and headaches (multifactorial mechanical back pain); worsening of neck pain during swallowing (esophageal disorders); anorexia, nausea, vomiting, and change in bowel function or stool (GI disorders); urinary symptoms and flank pain (urinary tract disorders), especially if intermittent, colicky, and recurrent (nephrolithiasis); cough, dyspnea, and worsening during inspiration (pulmonary disorders); vaginal bleeding or discharge and pain related to menstrual cycle phase (pelvic disorders).
Past medical history includes known neck or back disorders (including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, disk disorders, and recent or remote injury) and surgery, risk factors for back disorders (eg, cancer, osteoporosis), risk factors for aneurysm (eg, smoking, hypertension), and risk factors for infection (eg, immunosuppression; IV drug use; recent surgery, penetrating trauma, or bacterial infection).
Temperature and general appearance are noted. When possible, patients should be unobtrusively observed as they move into the examination room, undress, and climb onto the table. If symptoms are exacerbated by psychologic issues, true functional level can be assessed more accurately when patients are not aware they are being evaluated.
The examination focuses on the spine and the neurologic examination. If no mechanical spinal source of pain is obvious, patients are checked for sources of referred pain.
In the spinal examination, the back and neck are inspected for any visible deformity, area of erythema, or vesicular rash. The spine and paravertebral muscles are palpated for tenderness, muscle spasm, and features of myofascial pain syndrome (taut bands, trigger points, and pressure sensitivity). Gross range of motion is tested.
The neurologic examination should at least assess function of the entire spinal cord. Strength and deep tendon reflexes are tested. In patients with neurologic symptoms, sensation and sacral nerve function (eg, rectal tone, anal wink reflex, bulbocavernosus reflex) are tested. Reflex tests are among the most reliable physical tests for confirming normal spinal cord function. Corticospinal tract dysfunction is indicated by the extensor plantar response and Hoffman's sign. To test for Hoffman's sign, clinicians tap the nail or flick the volar surface of the 3rd finger; if the distal phalanx of the thumb flexes, the test is positive, usually indicating corticospinal tract dysfunction caused by stenosis of the cervical cord. Sensory findings are subjective and may be unreliable.
The straight leg raise test helps confirm sciatica. The patient is supine with both knees extended and the ankles dorsiflexed. The clinician slowly raises the affected leg, keeping the knee extended. If sciatica is present, 10 to 60° of elevation typically causes symptoms. For the crossed straight leg raise test, the unaffected leg is raised; the test is positive if sciatica occurs in the affected leg. A positive straight leg test is sensitive but not specific for herniated disk; the crossed straight leg raise test is less sensitive but 90% specific. The seated straight leg raise test is done while patients are seated with the hip joint flexed at 90°; the lower leg is slowly raised until the knee is fully extended. If sciatica is present, the pain in the spine (and often the radicular symptoms) occurs as the leg is extended.
In the general examination, the lungs are auscultated. The abdomen is checked for tenderness, masses, and, particularly in patients > 55, a pulsatile mass (which suggests abdominal aortic aneurysm). With a fist, clinicians percuss the costovertebral angle for tenderness, suggesting pyelonephritis.
Rectal examination, including stool testing for occult blood and, in men, prostate examination, is done. In women with symptoms suggesting a pelvic disorder or with unexplained fever, pelvic examination is done.
Lower-extremity pulses are checked.
The following findings are of particular concern:
Interpretation of findings:
Although serious extraspinal disorders (eg, cancers, aortic aneurysms, epidural abscesses, osteomyelitis) are uncommon causes of back pain, they are not rare, particularly in high-risk groups.
A spinal cause is more likely (but not definitive) than referred pain from an extraspinal cause when
Red flag findings should heighten suspicion of a serious cause (see Table 2: Neck and Back Pain: Interpretation of Red Flag Findings in Patients With Back Pain).
Other findings are also helpful. Erythema and tenderness over the spine suggest infection, particularly in patients with risk factors. Worsening of pain with flexion is consistent with intervertebral disk disease; worsening with extension suggests spinal stenosis, arthritis affecting the facet joints, or retroperitoneal inflammation or infiltration (eg, pancreatic or kidney inflammation or tumor). Tenderness over certain specific trigger points suggests fibromyalgia. Deformities of the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) and distal interphalangeal (DIP) finger joints and stiffness that lessens within 30 min after awakening suggest osteoarthritis. Neck pain that is unrelated to swallowing and is exertional may indicate angina.
Usually, if duration of pain is short (< 4 to 6 wk), no testing is required unless red flag findings are present, patients have had a serious injury (eg, vehicular crash, fall from a height, penetrating trauma), or evaluation suggests a specific nonmechanical cause (eg, pyelonephritis).
Plain x-rays can identify most osteoporotic fractures and osteoarthritis. However, they do not identify abnormalities in soft tissue (the most common cause of back and neck pain) or nerve tissue (as occurs in many serious disorders). Thus, x-rays are usually unnecessary and do not change management. Sometimes x-rays are done to identify obvious bone abnormalities (eg, those due to infection or tumors) and to avoid MRI and CT, which are harder to obtain but which are much more accurate and usually necessary.
Testing is guided by findings and suspected cause:
Underlying disorders are treated.
Acute musculoskeletal pain (with or without radiculopathy) is treated with
Acetaminophen or NSAIDs are the initial choice of analgesics, but opioids may be necessary for severe pain. Adequate analgesia is important immediately after acute injury to help limit the cycle of pain and spasm.
Acute muscle spasms may also be relieved by cold or heat. Cold is usually preferred to heat during the first 2 days after an injury. Ice and cold packs should not be applied directly to the skin. They should be enclosed (eg, in plastic) and placed over a towel or cloth. The ice is removed after 20 min, then later reapplied for 20 min over a period of 60 to 90 min. This process can be repeated several times during the first 24 h. Heat, using a heating pad, can be applied for the same periods of time. Because the skin on the back may be insensitive to heat, heating pads must be used cautiously to prevent burns. Patients are advised not to use a heating pad at bedtime to avoid prolonged exposure due to falling asleep with the pad still on their back. Diathermy may help reduce muscle spasm and pain after the acute stage.
Oral muscle relaxants (eg, cyclobenzaprine, methocarbamol, metaxalone) are controversial. Benefits of these drugs should be weighed against their CNS effects and other adverse effects, particularly in elderly patients, who may have more severe adverse effects.
Although a brief initial period (eg, 1 to 2 days) of decreased activity is sometimes needed for comfort, prolonged bed rest, spinal traction, and corsets are not beneficial. Patients with torticollis and sometimes cervical strains may benefit from a cervical collar and contour pillow until pain is relieved and they can participate in a stabilization program.
Spinal manipulation may help relieve pain caused by muscle spasm or an acute neck or back injury; however, some forms of manipulation may have risks for patients with disk disorders or osteoporosis.
When acute pain decreases enough that motion is possible, a lumbar stabilization program is begun. This program includes exercises that strengthen abdominal and low back muscles plus instruction in work posture; the aim is to strengthen the supporting structures of the back and reduce the likelihood of the condition becoming chronic or recurrent.
Clinicians should reassure patients with acute nonspecific musculoskeletal back pain that the prognosis is good and that activity and exercise are safe even when they cause some discomfort. Clinicians should be thorough, kind, firm, and nonjudgmental. If depression or secondary gain persists for several months, psychologic evaluation should be considered.
Low back pain affects 50% of adults > 60.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm (and CT or ultrasonography to detect it) should be considered in older patients with atraumatic low back pain, particularly those who smoke or have hypertension, even if no physical findings suggest this diagnosis.
Imaging of the spine may be appropriate for elderly patients (eg, to rule out cancer) even when the cause appears to be uncomplicated musculoskeletal back pain.
Oral muscle relaxants (eg, cyclobenzaprine, methocarbamol, metaxalone) are controversial; anticholinergic, CNS, and other adverse effects may outweigh potential benefits in elderly patients.
Last full review/revision March 2013 by Sally Pullman-Mooar, MD
Content last modified March 2013