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Researchers Dig Deep to Find Cause of Neck Pain

Posted on: 12/14/2004
This is the first study to measure the activity of the deep flexor group of neck muscles in patients with neck pain. Chronic neck pain is increasing in the United States. Finding ways to test and retrain impaired neck muscles may be important in treating the problem. Researchers hope this information can be used to prevent neck pain from occurring in the first place or from coming back in patients who have had one episode already.

In this study 10 patients with neck pain were compared with 10 people without neck pain. Researchers measured neck range of motion and electrical activity of the deep muscles that flex the neck. The deep flexor muscles were chosen because they connect to the bones in the neck. These muscles support and control the cervical spine. The movement of neck flexion measured through five positions was called the craniocervical flexion test.

The authors report lower electrical readings in the deep neck flexor muscles in patients with neck pain. At the same time, there was more electrical activity in the neck muscles closer to the surface. This suggests that patients with neck pain change the way muscles work to move the head and neck.

The researchers aren't sure why patients with neck pain use a different movement strategy than healthy subjects. Is it because the deep muscles are weak? Or because the other muscles are more active? What causes the change in muscle activity? And which comes first: pain, or change in muscle function?

Until we have the answers to these questions, the authors conclude that both surface and deep muscles of the neck should be tested. Both are needed to control movement and stability of the neck. Using the craniocervical flexion test and retraining weak muscles is a valid way to treat neck pain.

Deborah L. Falla, et al. Patients with Neck Pain Demonstrate Reduced Electromyographic Activity of the Deep Cervical Flexor Muscles During Performance of the Craniocervical Flexion Test. In Spine October 1, 2004. Vol. 29. No. 19. Pp. 2108-2114.

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