Have pain in your neck or upper back? You are not alone! While less common than low back pain, pain in the neck is a common complaint leading to doctor’s office visits. Pain in the upper back is somewhat less common, but we will include it in our discussion for completeness.
In a recent post we talked about imaging of the lumbar spine, the lower portion of the spine which sits behind your belly. Much of the imaging for the rest of the spine is similar to what is done for the lumbar region.
The cervical spine (coming from the Latin word for neck) is sometimes referred to as the C spine. It consists of the first seven vertebrae (from the skull) and the cartilage discs between them, in addition to adjacent ligaments and muscles. A lot of motion (up,down, around!) occurs in this part of the spine during the day, so this is a common spot for symptoms of overuse or muscle strain to occur.
Patients with cervical spine problems may have pain in the neck with or without symptoms in the upper arms/shoulders – this can be pain or can be nerve type symptoms like numbness or tingling. How far the symptoms go down your arm can help indicate the level of involvement in the cervical spine.
The T Spine is the thoracic spine consisting of the 12 vertebral bodies, discs, adjacent muscles and ligaments at chest level. There is less movement of the spine at this level, so symptoms here are less common. Symptoms of thoracic spine problems may include pain in the upper back, shoulders, arms, or to the sides of the chest. Nerve symptoms like numbness, tingling or weakness may also be present.
As in the lumbar spine, there are a lot of age-related changes involving the discs and/or the adjacent bones; these may or may not be related to the patient’s symptoms. Imaging of the cervical and thoracic spine is generally performed after careful history and physical examination, and may be delayed to see if a trial of conservative treatment improves symptoms. Imaging immediately may be warranted if there are serious symptoms such as major trauma, weight loss, or nerve symptoms, particularly weakness of the arms or legs.
The spectrum of problems in the cervical and thoracic spine is similar to that in the lumbar spine and can include disc displacement, fractures, and muscle strain. Less common causes of neck and upper back symptoms include disease in the spinal cord itself, spinal cord tumors and things like multiple sclerosis. Note that the spinal cord ends at approximately the upper lumbar level; therefore, these problems do not directly affect the lumbar spine.
Imaging of the cervical and thoracic spine is similar to that for the lumbar spine. X-ray, CT and MRI can all be used to diagnose problems.Plain films or x-rays may be the best starting point as they can show alignment and fractures. X-rays can also show any narrowing in the spaces between the vertebra indicating disc disease. A CT shows bones and adjacent tissues and is the test of choice if we are concerned about fractures. CT can see the cord and nerve roots if we do it after a myelogram (more commonly done with C spine than with the T spine). Last, an MRI can show the spinal cord, nerve roots and discs and how they relate.
Ultimately, imaging of the neck and upper spine may be helpful to determine the proper course of action to get you on the road to your best possible health!
Originally published 5/14/14 on diagnosticimagingcenterskc.com.