It’s extremely common for people to experience both neck and shoulder pain. This is jokingly referred to by experts as “shneck” pain. Today we’ll be talking about why your shoulder pain may be caused by your neck, and some things you can do about it.
Why would I have shoulder pain if my neck is the problem?
The cervical spine (neck bones) house your spinal cord. All of the nerves that go to your shoulder, arm, and hand must come from the spinal cord and pass through the cervical spine and neck muscles before traveling down the arm. If you develop irritation of these nerves at the spine or as they pass through the neck muscles, the nerves may radiate pain to the shoulder and even all the way down to the fingers. This is called “referred pain”, or pain felt in a spot other than the original source (a classic example of this is people experiencing left arm or jaw pain with heart attacks).
So, what type of injuries to the neck can cause shoulder pain?
-Cervical radiculopathy, or a pinched nerve, can cause pain signals along the inside border of the shoulder blade or into the shoulder/arm.
-Brachial plexopathy. The brachial plexus is the bundle of nerves from the spine that goes to all the muscles in the upper extremity. It passes underneath a series of muscles along its path, and chronic tightness in the muscles may irritate the nerves, causing shoulder pain.
-Neck muscle trigger points. Referred pain from chronically tight neck muscles can cause not just shoulder pain but even pain going all the way down to the fingers.
-Cervical disc disease, or degeneration of the shock absorbing disc in between your vertebrae, can refer pain to the mid-back and shoulder.
How do I know if I have one of those problems? Sometimes it’s easy to tell. If neck movements aggravate the shoulder pain it’s a safe bet that’s the cause. A common thing is patients having work done where it hurts on their shoulder that hasn’t provided any relief. There are other ways to tell but your doctor will be better able to pick up on them than you will by yourself.
What should I do if I’m experiencing shoulder and neck pain?
The best advice is to see a trained professional who will take a thorough health history and perform physical, neurological, and orthopedic testing to determine what the root cause of your problem is. You may need to stretch your neck muscles, get your neck adjusted, or get referred out for an MRI of the neck, it all depends on what the cause it.
And while having pain is annoying, doing things for the shoulder when the neck is truly the cause will only lead to more frustration.