Cervical Proprioception Impairment in Neck Pain-Pathophysiology, Clinical Evaluation, and Management: A Narrative Review

Pain Ther. 2021 Jun;10(1):143-164. doi: 10.1007/s40122-020-00230-z. Epub 2021 Jan 12.


Neck pain is very common, but most of the causes are unknown, making diagnosis and treatment extremely challenging. Current studies have found that one of the main problems in patients with neck pain is the impairment of cervical proprioception, which subsequently leads to cervical sensorimotor control disturbances. Cervical spine has a very delicate proprioceptive system that plays a crucial role in controlling posture and balance. Cervical proprioceptive impairment in neck pain occurs through a variety of mechanisms. Experimental neck muscle pain induced by injection of hypertonic saline results in inhibition of the activation of painful muscle; chronic neck pain causes structural and functional impairment of cervical muscles; excessive activation of mechanoreceptors in degenerative cervical discs and facet joints produces a large number of erroneous sensory signals. Clinical examinations to assess the link between structural pathology and neck pain have been unsuccessful, opening the way for the development of function-based tests. To date, eight neck sensorimotor control tests have been reported to evaluate patients with chronic neck pain. Although some tests may involve different subsystems (such as oculomotor system and vestibular system), all tests measure sensorimotor control in the neck, and the most commonly used is cervical joint position error (JPE) test. Current studies support the effectiveness of exercises targeting different aspects of sensorimotor function, in particular retraining aimed at improving cervical proprioception and muscle coordination. Based on the available evidence, it is recommended that patients with neck pain should be assessed and managed for cervical proprioceptive impairment and sensorimotor control disturbances.

Keywords: Cervical joint position error; Cervical proprioception; Cervical proprioceptor; Cervical sensorimotor control; Neck pain; Pathophysiology; Rehabilitation.

Publication types

  • Review