Serious Neck Pain is No Joke:
Why Your Approach to Seeking Care is Critical

Leading neurosurgeon Dr. Jay Chun advises on what to do when you need care for potentially life-altering neck injuries

As the summer season heats up, the incidence of neck injuries is also on the rise. Whether from diving into shallow water, whiplash from water sports or car accidents from more frequent travel, these potentially life-altering injuries require a careful approach to care.

“The neck – or cervical spine – is delicate and critically important to overall health,” says Dr. Jay Chun, a neurosurgeon at Altair Health and co-director of the Atlantic Health Spine Center at Overlook Medical Center. “Unlike the lumbar spine which controls the lower extremities, the cervical spine houses vital nerves that supply the brain, esophagus, trachea, voice box and more. That’s why neck injuries can be catastrophic, and in some cases, fatal.”

Yet, few people know what to do when they or a loved one experiences serious neck pain.

Dr. Chun, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cervical spine issues, offers these tips approaching treatment and navigating through the options:

Know the type of doctor you need.

Patients are commonly confused about when to see a neurosurgeon versus an orthopedist. While orthopedists focus on the musculoskeletal system – which includes the neck – neurosurgeons specialize in treating the nervous system, which is key given the vital nerves housed in the neck. Neurosurgical training zeros in on the cervical spine, which is why orthopedists often call in neurosurgeons when there is nerve damage, complexity or complications with a patient case.

Find the root cause of the pain.

Beyond selecting the right type of doctor, it’s important to look for a medical professional who, as part of his/her regular practice, invests the time upfront to pinpoint the proper diagnosis. The specialist should be a “neurology detective” of sorts, evaluating the full picture and extent of symptoms to find the true source of the pain. A good diagnostician may use measures such as cervical manipulation and physical therapy to uncover the problem.

Explore treatment options.

Choosing to be seen by a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you’re signing up for surgery. In fact, top neurosurgeons will tell you the best patient outcomes happen when symptoms can be adequately improved without surgery. The benefits of alternate treatment options – from different methods for pain management such as trigger point injections to varying levels of physical therapy – are worth exploring before surgery is determined as the remedy.

Look into minimally invasive procedures if surgery is required.

When surgery is the best course of treatment, minimally invasive procedures offer many benefits compared to conventional surgery. With the use of small incisions, customized instruments and innovative imaging techniques, minimally invasive methods enable doctors to access highly targeted areas of the neck without disrupting other parts of the cervical spine. These kinds of procedures may also be performed with less damage to the surrounding tissues, resulting in less pain and a faster return to normal activities.

“The neck is highly complex and has the potential to affect your entire body,” adds Chun. “While being cautious to avoid neck injuries in the first place is important, be prepared to advocate for your own health if and when you need the help of a medical professional.”