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Why Does My Neck Hurt? Why Is My Neck Stiff?

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

Facet joint problems or injuries are a common cause of neck pain and stiffness. To study this, medical researchers induced facet joint pain in normal healthy volunteers by injecting saline into one joint of each volunteer (x-rays were used to properly place the needle inside the joint). Each volunteer was then asked to describe where they felt their pain. Common pain referral zones from C2 – C7 facet jointsare shown here (Figure 1). (1) Facet joints are small fingernail-sized pairs of joints that together with your discs, allow you to move your 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae.  

When injured or ‘kinked’ they become painful, stiff and refer (spread) pain up and down your neck and potentially to your shoulder blades, depending on the sore joint involved (as illustrated here). Additionally, facet joints regulate muscle tension in the respective muscles that move it. Thus, when a facet joint is sore it signals the muscles to tighten to protect the joint from further injury. Subsequently, the muscles in your pain referral zone also become sore and ‘knotted’ from being held involuntarily and constantly tight. (2)  Hence, you will experience both primary joint pain as well as secondary muscle pain. Often this leads people to believe that they have a muscle problem. They’re partially correct, but the tight/sore muscle is a secondary problem.  

Shown here is the right C5-6 facet joint formed by the C5 and C6 cervical vertebrae.

Typically, facet joint problems cause pain and/ or stiffness when moving your neck in certain directions. For example, when your right C5-6 facet joint is sore, you will have difficulty looking over your right shoulder and pain and tightness will spread to your shoulder blade muscles (the darker green on the left in Figure 1).

How can Dr. Arthur help?

If you experience sudden, recurrent or ongoing neck and shoulder problems chances are your underlying trouble is likely related to one or more facet joints and not just tight muscles alone. Left uncorrected over time, the facet joint can undergo degenerative changes. Additionally, neural signals from neurons in your brain to those muscles will begin to decrease, resulting in muscle weakness and loss of motor control. Correcting facet joint and disc problems requires a spine expert. Chiropractors today train for 7 years. Chiropractic adjustments restore proper alignment and movement as well as reduce inflammation. Importantly, adjustments also reprogram neural input from the brain to the tight muscles allowing them to relax and eventually strengthen. (3)  For longterm change this can take up to 6 months. Thus, your treatment schedule goes beyond pain relief to rejuvenate facet joint function, reduce muscle tension and maximize motor control.

The best therapeutic procedure for facet joint problems of the cervical spine is chiropractic mobilization, much gentler than an adjustment (no sudden twisting). Moreover, it is performed only in pain free directions. Together with good advice, Dr. Arthur generates a quicker and stronger repair as well as helps to prevent relapses!

Together with good advice, Dr. Arthur generates a quicker and stronger repair as well as helps to prevent relapses!


About the Author:

In 2015, Dr. Arthur received the "Award of Excellence" from the British Columbia Chiropractic Association. For more about Dr. Arthur view his cv.


1. Dwyer A, Aprill C, Bogduk N. Cervical zygapophyseal joint pain patterns 1: a study of normal volunteers. Spine 1990:15;453-457.

2. Denslow JS, Korr IM, Krems AD. Quantitative studies of chronic facilitation in human motorneuron pools. Am J Physio 1947;150:229-38.

3. Pickar JG. Neurophysiological effects of spinal manipulation. Spine J 2002;2:357-371.


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