Pain in the neck is a fairly common problem in middle-aged and elderly women. Almost all elderly women suffer from pain in neck and or upper back at some point. In some women, this becomes chronic. The pain in neck may radiate to one or both arms. It may be associated with abnormal sensations in the arms or hands.
Women tend to bend the neck during multiple activities, right from a young age. All domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, and washing involve bending or turning of the neck a lot. Hand work like crochet and knitting also involve bending of the neck. Apart from this, other activities like reading and writing also involve bending the neck to some degree. Recurrent bending and turning tends to put the neck under strain after some time. This results in pain.
Due to this stress, the portion of backbone in the neck tends to become stiff over time. Degeneration of the backbone sets in and as a result tiny new bones called osteophytes start growing in the joint spaces, a condition called spondylosis. In women it is much smaller and lighter as compared to men, hence making them more vulnerable to neck pain.
Calcium deficiency is another factor contributing to pain in joints and the neck. During adolescence, pregnancy, breastfeeding and during menopause the requirement of calcium is increased in the body. If this demand is not met, all bones of the body tend to become soft. Any slight movement puts these bones under stress resulting in pain. As the neck is one of the most used parts of the body, neck pain occurs commonly due to osteoporosis. At times women tend to be negligent towards their diet.
The result is deficiency of the necessary macro and micro nutrients in the body. Women from fairly affluent families also tend to be malnourished. The craze to remain slim also leads to malnutrition among preteen and teenage girls. The resultant malnutrition affects the whole body producing weakness, diminished resistance and vague pains and also back pain and neck pain.
Apart from this, any trauma or arthritis can affect the neck as well as other parts.
Depending on the cause, pain in the neck can be acute or chronic in onset and of variable intensity. Tingling and numbness occurs if there is compression of the nerve roots.
The cause of neck pain can be identified by x-rays and scans.
Treatment consists of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs. In case of chronic pain, one is advised to wear a neck collar to minimise the movements thus providing rest to the neck.
Women should be cautious about neck pain. They have to be educated about correct working postures, right from a young age. Unnecessary bending and turning of the neck should be avoided.
While sleeping or resting, high pillows should be avoided. This prevents stress on neck as it remains in level with rest of the body.
If a woman starts suffering from neck pain, she should start doing regular exercises of the neck to keep it supple and prevent pain. Exercises should be initiated only after the pain is reduced by means of drugs.
A regular balanced diet prevents osteoporosis and its related problems including neck pain. Calcium supplements are also useful for this purpose. Hence it is useful if women take them during puberty and menopause to prevent calcium deficiency.
Dr Rachna Pande is a specialist in internal medicine.