Winter is over, the sun is out, flowers are blooming and you are … miserable. If you suffer from seasonal allergies, the start of warm weather ushers in endless hours of sneezing, itchy eyes, and sinus congestion.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Every year, 20 million Americans suffer from pollen allergies, otherwise known as hay fever. While allergy symptoms are tolerable for many people, others experience added distress due to neck pain.
If allergies and neck pain bother you at the same time of the year, you may wonder if there is a connection between the two. We will examine some possible reasons for this pattern.
How do allergies start?
Each spring, summer, and fall, plants release pollen that floats on the wind and lodges in your eyes and airways to trigger allergies. While grasses are the most common cause of allergies, mold spores are another source. They can live anywhere, including your home, and cause allergy symptoms over several seasons.
Mold and mildew spread differently from plants. While plants have seeds, mold has “spores”. Some spores travel through windy air. Others spread when humidity is high, using a fog or dew to travel.
Allergic reactions start when plant pollen or mold spores reach your airways and encounter your body’s sentries, the mast cells. Mast cells in the mucosa lining of your nose sound the alarm when a foreign organism enters your body. They activate your immune system and trigger a number of responses:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Itchy throat
- Itchy and watery eyes
An immune response is useful if your body needs to remove foreign organisms such as viruses or bacteria. However, it is inconvenient when the trigger is merely pollen.
For more information on allergies, click here.
Why is neck pain so common?
Studies show that neck problems are common. Roughly 20-70% of adults experience neck pain that interferes with their daily activities, at some point in their lifetime.
Your neck contains the top part of your spinal column (cervical spine), a likely source for injuries and pain. The cervical spine needs strength to support the head. (Fun Fact: the average human head weighs 10-13 pounds). It also needs flexibility in order to allow the neck to twist and bend.
The cervical spine has multiple parts:
- 7 back bones (vertebrae) – They provide strength to your neck and protect the spinal cord.
- 6 pairs of facet joints – These small joints connect the backbones and provide flexibility in the neck.
- 6 discs – These cartilage cushions act as shock absorbers between the backbones.
- 8 pairs of spinal nerves – Spinal nerves branch out from the top of the spine to reach the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. They receive touch temperature, and pain sensations from the skin and control upper body movements (opening doors, brushing your hair).
The cervical spine is like a finely tuned instrument, with its multiple parts working together to produce precise movements. If any of these parts wear out or suffer injuries, you will experience neck stiffness and pain.
How does neck pain start?
In older people, neck pain usually starts slowly due to wear and tear in the joints or arthritis. Young people can experience sudden neck pain due to a car accident, a sport injury, or work-related strain.
Common causes of neck pain include:
- Muscle strains. Too many hours hunched over your desk or over your smartphone can trigger muscle pain. If you don’t seek treatment for your muscle pain in a timely manner, you may develop myofascial pain syndrome, a chronic form of muscle pain. The hallmark of myofascial pain syndrome is a taut band of muscle, known as a trigger point. Multiple trigger points in your neck muscles can cause considerable neck pain.
For more information on muscle pain, click here.
- Worn joints. Just like the other joints in your body, your neck joints start to wear down with age, injuries, and arthritis. A breakdown in the joint’s cartilage, causes the backbones to rub against each other. This causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and restricted neck movement.
- Pinched nerve. Damage to nerves in the neck (cervical) area can cause pain and the loss of sensation along the nerve’s pathway. This may lead to numbness and weakness in the neck, shoulder, chest, upper back, arm, or hand. Pressure on a nerve can occur due to ruptured discs, the growth of bone spurs, and arthritic changes.
- Disc degeneration. At birth, your discs contain about 80% water. With increased age the discs dry out, don’t absorb shocks as well, and become brittle and painful. Although this wear and tear in the spine is expected, it can cause considerable neck pain.
- Soft tissue injuries. Auto collisions or contact sports such as football can cause the head to move backward and forward, straining the soft tissues of the neck. Neck pain is caused by damage to the muscles, the tendons (connect muscles to the bones) or the ligaments (connect bones to each other).
Possible links between seasonal allergies and neck pain
Some people feel that they have neck pain at the same time of the year when their allergies flare up. If you are one of these people here are some possible explanations.
- Weather changes may cause both seasonal allergies and neck pain. High rainfall, especially in the spring, increases pollen levels. Due to the high humidity from rain, mold growth is also on the rise, triggering allergic reactions. A general state of inflammation takes over your body. Inflammation starts due to your allergies but it may also increase joint pain in people sensitive to weather changes. Increased stress and fatigue may lead to increased pain levels if you have an underlying neck pain problem.
- Neck pain may result from tense muscles. Constant sneezing, coughing, and lack of sleep due to annoying allergic symptoms may cause your neck muscles to tense. This leads to increased muscle tension in your neck. Muscle pain may also start due to weather-related joint pain. As part of your body’s protective mechanism, muscles will tense over an underlying area of pain. Muscle tension can develop in your neck if you have an underlying joint injury, arthritis, or disc problem.
- Allergic congestion in your sphenoid sinuses may cause pressure in the back part of your head and neck. You have four pairs of sinuses, air-filled cavities in your head, that can become congested during allergy season. The deepest of these are the sphenoid sinuses, positioned in the middle of the skull. (See the following figure). If the sphenoid sinuses are very large (as may occur naturally in some people) they can extend close to the base of the occipital bone, in the back of your head. This area is close to the neck. You may feel that a congested sphenoid sinus is causing “neck pressure and pain” during allergy season.
When to seek help from your doctors
If you suffer from allergies and neck pain at the same time, seek care for both ailments. Do not just treat your allergies, hoping that your neck pain will automatically go away. Similarly, do not assume that treatment for your neck pain will improve your allergies. The two problems might be unrelated.
See a general practitioner (GP) or an immunologist if:
- Your allergies persist after treatment with over-the-counter medications
- Your allergies interfere with your daily life, such as driving safely or work
Neck pain requires a visit to a pain specialist who can diagnose the underlying problem and offer you the best treatment.
See a pain specialist if:
- Neck pain does not improve with over-the-counter medications
- You have trouble turning your head while driving
- A doctor has diagnosed you with neck problems in the past
While allergies are bothersome, treatment is fairly straightforward.
- Avoid the allergy trigger – wear a mask, use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your house
- Take over-the-counter antihistamines to calm sneezing, itching, runny nose and hives
- Use over-the-counter nasal sprays to decrease congestion
For persistent allergy symptoms your GP or immunologist may offer:
- Prescription antihistamines
- Steroid nasal sprays to decrease inflammation
- Eye drops to relieve itchy eyes
- A leukotriene blocker (such as Singulair) that treats asthma and blocks some of the substances that cause allergy symptoms.
- Immunotherapy or allergy shots, a longterm treatment where you are exposed to tiny amounts of an allergen (such as pollen) over several years. It changes how your immune system reacts to allergy triggers.
Treatments for neck pain
Identifying the correct source of your neck pain is critical to a successful treatment. Proper diagnosis of your neck pain problem(s) starts with a visit to a pain specialist. Your visit will include a complete medical history and a thorough physical examination.
Based on your individual neck problem, your pain specialist may offer a number of treatments:
Treatments for muscle tension in the neck
- Muscle relaxants
- Trigger point injections with numbing agents and/or steroids
- Botox injections
- Dry needling
For more information, click here.
Treatments for joint pain in the neck
- Cervical Medial Branch Nerve Block (MBBs) for treatment of joint pain
- Epidural Steroid Injections (ESIs)
- Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP Therapy)
- Stem Cell Therapy
- Radiofrequency neurotomy (or ablation)
For more information on these treatments, click here.
Treatments for neck pain due to a pinched nerve
- Medications for nerve pain (antidepressants like Cymbalta, anticonvulsants like Neurontin)
- Epidural Nerve Block
Treatments for neck pain due to disc degeneration
- Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) like Advil, Aspirin
- Medications for nerve pain
- Muscle relaxants
- Epidural Steroid Injections (ESIs)
- Regenerative treatments: stem cells and platelet-rich plasma (PRP)
For more information on prolotherapy, click here.
Treatments for neck pain due to a soft tissue injury (i.e. old whiplash injury)
- Anti-inflammatories, Tylenol
- Stronger pain medication
If neck pain and allergies are interfering with your busy life, seek treatment for both. You may have an undiagnosed neck problem that worsens during allergy season, due to a general state of inflammation in your body. Our experienced NSPC pain specialists can help you.
Click here for an appointment.