Rolling your head from side to side or tilting it up and down is something most people do throughout the day without much thought. However, if you have ever experienced neck pain or discomfort when moving your head in these ways, it can be concerning. Understanding the anatomy of the neck and potential causes of this type of pain can help identify ways to prevent or treat it.
The Anatomy of the Neck
Your neck contains muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels and vertebrae that all work together to support your head and allow it to move in many directions. Key structures include:
- Cervical vertebrae – Your neck contains seven small, interlocking bones called cervical vertebrae that form your spinal column in the neck area. These bones have cartilage pads between them that provide cushioning and impact absorption.
- Intervertebral discs – Discs between the vertebrae in your neck keep them separate and act as shock absorbers when your neck moves. These discs are prone to injury and degeneration.
- Facet joints – Where the vertebrae meet, there are facet joints lined with cartilage to promote smooth movement. Injury or wear and tear of these joints can cause pain.
- Muscles – Multiple muscles like the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius connect the neck to the head, shoulders and back to support movement. Tight or strained muscles can result in discomfort.
Potential Causes of Neck Pain with Head Movement
If you feel neck pain when rolling your head, here are some possible causes:
Since muscles enable your neck to move in all directions, muscle strains are a common cause of pain with head rolling. Maybe you slept in an awkward position that strained muscles or have poor posture that puts excess tension on muscles over time. Things like muscle knots and muscle imbalance between the two sides of the neck are contributors too.
Injured Intervertebral Discs
The discs between vertebrae act as shock absorbers for all movements we make with our head and neck. However, discs can bulge, rupture or otherwise become damaged over time from strain or impact. Damaged discs put pressure on nerve endings which results in localized neck pain that could get worse with head movements like rolling the head sideways or backward and forward.
While disc injuries can occur suddenly, discs in the neck also naturally degenerate as you age. Degeneration causes discs to lose flexibility and shock absorbing capabilities. This age-related condition called degenerative disc disease often comes along with bone spur formation around damaged discs. Moving your head pushes against stiff, arthritic discs and bone spurs which translates into pain.
Since many sensitive nerves travel through the small spaces of the neck vertebrae, it’s possible to pinch nerves with damaged discs, bone spurs, tight muscles or misaligned vertebrae. Nerve impingement causes symptoms like numbness, tingling and radiating pain down the arms. It could also simply cause localized neck pain when rolling the head.
Facet Joint Disorders
The facet joints along the vertebrae make it possible to tilt and turn your head. However, these small joints can lose stability and develop arthritis over time. Stiff, inflamed facet joints put pressure on nerve endings when you roll your head, resulting in pain. A facet joint injury could also contribute to this issue.
Trigger points or muscle knots within the neck can cause sharp pain when pressure is put on them. Since rolling your head pushes and pulls on muscles, it can compress knots and bring on localized discomfort. Muscle knots develop from strain, poor posture, injury and even stress.
Past neck injuries like whiplash from a car accident or sports injury can cause lasting damage to muscles, vertebrae and connective tissues. Any instability, scar tissue buildup or arthritis after injury puts more strain on the neck with movement and often leads to mobility-related pain like when rolling the head around.
When to See a Doctor
It’s generally advisable to consult your doctor if head rolling causes moderate to severe neck pain on a regular basis. While muscles strains and minor joint stiffness might improve with rest and conservative measures, an examination can determine if there are any underlying injuries or nerve issues causing the symptoms. Diagnostic imaging tests like x-ray, MRI or CT scans might be needed to assess disc, bone, muscle and nerve problems in detail too. If the source of pain with head rolling is identified through testing, customized treatment plans can be mapped out. This could involve physical therapy, steroid injections, surgery or alternative treatments in serious cases.
Preventative and Pain Relief Strategies
Staying proactive against neck injury, keeping muscles flexible and joints mobile may help ward off pain triggered by head rolling. Some tips include:
- Maintain proper posture when sitting at desks or looking down at phones to avoid muscle strain
- Apply heat packs orcold compresses to tense neck muscles
- Do neck stretches and exercises daily to improve range of motion
- Get regular massages to relax muscles and increase blood flow
- Use OTC pain relievers during painful flare ups
- Sleep on a cervical pillow to better support the natural curve of the neck
- Make ergonomic improvements like placing computer screens at eye level
Paying attention to neck pain that sticks around or gets worse is also key to getting treatment promptly when needed. With some preventative care and awareness of common causes, neck pain related to simple head movement can often be avoided or corrected.