When It’s More Than Just a Pain in the Neck
by Dr John Park
“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 my right shoulder. Do I need x-rays?”
A lot of MMA and grappling athletes come to my 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? Any time 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 that damage to tissues has occurred. And 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 warrant a trip to the hospital emergency room.
Sometimes we also see disk injuries in the neck that can cause symptoms elsewhere in your body besides the neck. The intervertebral disks in your neck act as shock absorbers and also allow for flexibility in your neck. Over time, the disks can degenerate, bulge, or herniate from repetitive use and acute traumas. When the disk 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 disk in your neck? The only way to be sure is to get an MRI done. However, it is easy to diagnose a disk 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 disk and have a pinched nerve in your neck. It is also common to experience numbness and tingling in your fingers following a cervical disk injury. If a herniated disk is left untreated, it can often lead to muscle weakness and atrophy in the long run.
The good news is most disk 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 a key factor that delays the healing process in disks. Sitting for long periods with your head and neck stooped forward compresses the disks and may lead to further bulging if you are not careful.
Surgery for a herniated disk 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 typically involves a fusion procedure, which limits your range of motion in one area but can predispose you to further disk 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, shoulder blade, or fingers could mean a more serious injury. Therefore, you should 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 information about signs and symptoms, or specific exercises for neck injury rehabilitation, log onto the forum at www.yourMMAdoctor.com. See you on the mat.
Dr John H. Park, DC, CSCS
Progressive Spinal & Sports Rehab
10076 Darnestown Rd
Rockville, MD 20850
Phone: (301) 294-5101
Dr Park is a board-certified chiropractor with physical therapy privileges in Maryland. He has more than 10 years of martial arts experience in tae kwon do, Muay Thai, and BJJ. Dr Park continues to train and compete as a BJJ blue belt under Mike Moses/Lloyd Irvin at Evolve Academy (www.evolveacademy.com).