When It’s More Than Just a Pain in the Neck

The most common injuries to the neck we see are sprains and strains. “Hey Doc, I got trapped in a nasty guillotine choke and now my neck hurts, but I’ve also got this burning sensation going down my left arm. What does that mean?” Or “Hey Doc, someone got me in a neck crank and I heard something pop. It hurts a lot when I look over the right shoulder. Do I need x-rays?”

A lot of MMA and grappling athletes come to the office with similar complaints. Fortunately, most neck injuries that occur from training and competition are minor and usually self limiting. The most common injuries to the neck we see are sprains and strains. Sprains are injuries to the ligaments (connective tissues that hold the bones together) while strains are injuries to the muscles. These types of injuries usually resolve within a few weeks with a little rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and a few modifications to training.

So when is it appropriate to get your neck injury checked out by a physician? Anytime you experience severe pain in your neck after a trauma like getting dropped on your head from a double leg takedown or getting stacked while fighting from the guard, it would be appropriate to get an evaluation. Pain is an obvious indication of damage to tissues, but if you have severe limitations in range of motion in your neck, I would recommend x-rays to rule out a possible fracture. The inability to move other parts of your body (paralysis) or experience sensation (the ability to touch and feel) are a possible indication of severe spinal cord damage and warrants a trip to the hospital emergency room. Sometimes we also see disc injuries in the neck that can cause symptoms elsewhere in your body besides the neck. The intervertebral discs in your neck act as shock absorbers and also allows for flexibility in your neck. Over time the discs can degenerate, bulge or herniate from repetitive use or acute traumas. When the disc bulges or herniates, it pushes out and may compress or irritate the sensitive nerves that exit you neck and travel down into your arm.

How can you tell if you’ve got a bulging disc in your neck? The only way to be sure is to get an MRI done, however, it is easy to diagnose a disc injury based on symptoms. If you’ve sustained a neck injury and have pain that travels down into your shoulder blade, arm, forearm or fingers, chances are you may have damaged the disc and have a pinched nerve in your neck. It is also common to experience numbness and tingling in your fingers following a cervical (neck) disc injury. If a herniated disc is left untreated, it can often lead to muscle weakness and atrophy (muscle wasting).

The good news is most disc injuries do resolve and get better over time. Most of our patients experience relief with conservative physical therapy modalities like electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and manual traction. Chiropractic care can also be beneficial in later stages of care as well. In more severe cases, sometimes it is necessary to get corticosteroids (strong anti-inflammatory medications) prescribed or an injection performed to decrease the inflammation and help with pain. Once an evaluation has been done and an accurate diagnosis has been made, you can start with a few exercises to improve your range of motion followed by strengthening exercises. Returning too soon to training can delay the healing process or set you up for further injuries. Poor posture is also key factor that delays the healing process in discs. Sitting for long periods with your head and neck stooped forward compresses the discs and may lead further bulging if you are not careful.

Surgery for a herniated disc in the neck should be considered as a last resort. It may be necessary in a few certain cases, however you should discuss long term outcomes with your orthopedic surgeon and make sure he is aware of your desire to compete in MMA. Surgery may involve a fusion procedure which my limit your range of motion and predispose you to further disc degeneration in other areas of your neck. If you have a neck injury, remember to listen to your body. Constant pain or unusual symptoms like numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation in your arms or fingers could mean a more serious injury so know when to see a doctor. We’re here to help all the MMA fighters and competitors continue to train and compete pain free. For more info on signs and symptoms, or specific exercises for neck injury rehabilitation log onto the forum at www.yourMMAdoctor.com. See you on the mat!

Contact info: Dr. John H. Park, D.C., C.S.C.S.Progressive Spinal & Sports Rehab10076 Darnestown Road Suite 200Rockville, MD 20850www.ProSpineRehab.comwww.yourMMAdoctor.comPhone: (301) 294-5101

Dr. Park is a board certified chiropractor with physical therapy privileges in Maryland. He is also a BJJ blue belt under Mike Moses/Lloyd Irvin and continues to train in MMA and Muay Thai at Evolve Academy (www.evolveacademy.com).

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Dr. John H. Park