Neck pain is a common disabling worldwide health problem with a high socio-economic burden. Changes underlying the transition to, or the maintenance of a chronic state are still barely understood. Increasing evidence suggests that morphological muscle changes, including changes in cross-sectional area (CSA) or fatty infiltration, play a role in chronic neck pain. However, a structured overview of the current evidence of morphological changes is lacking. The objective of this study was to systematically review the morphological muscle changes in patients with chronic neck pain, including those with whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) and chronic idiopathic neck pain. Fourteen of 395 papers were included after extensive screening. Most studies were of moderate methodological quality. A higher CSA was found in all flexor muscles in both patients with WAD and patients with chronic idiopathic neck pain, except for the deeper flexor muscles in patients with chronic idiopathic neck pain. The cervical extensor muscles show an increased CSA at the highest cervical segments in patients with WAD, while most studies in patients with chronic idiopathic neck pain report a decreased CSA in all extensor muscles. Fatty infiltration, which could be accountable for an increased CSA, of both cervical extensors and flexors seems to occur only in patients with WAD.
Some evidence is available for changes in muscle morphology, however more high quality prospective and cross-sectional research is needed to confirm these changes and to identify potential underlying causes that need yet to be discovered.