What is neck pain?
Neck pain is pain in or around the spine beneath your head, known as the cervical spine. Neck pain is a common symptom of many different injuries and medical conditions.
You might have axial neck pain (felt mostly in the neck) or radicular neck pain (pain shoots into other areas such as the shoulders or arms). It can be acute (lasting from days to up to 6 weeks) or chronic (lasts longer than 3 months to years).
Neck pain can interfere with daily activities and reduce your quality of life if left untreated.
Who is affected by neck pain?
Neck pain is very common. It occurs in about one out of three people at least once a year. It is more common in women than in men, and your chance of developing it increases with age.
What does neck pain feel like?
Some people describe the pain as:
- A persistent ache.
- A stabbing or burning pain.
- Increased sensitivity to mild pressure applied to neck.
- Neck pain plus headache and numbness or tingling in one or both arms.
- Increased tension/tightening in the muscles in the neck.
What are the possible causes of neck pain?
Many different medical issues and injuries can cause neck pain. Conditions that may cause neck pain include:
- Aging: Degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis (the wearing down of joint cartilage) and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spaces in the spine) can lead to neck pain as you age. Over time, stress and motion can lead to spinal disc degeneration, causing a herniated disc or pinched nerve.
- Injury: Trauma from sudden forced movement of the neck or head and rebound in the opposite direction (whiplash) can cause pain and soreness. The muscles, ligaments, discs, vertebral joints and nerve roots in the spine cord in the neck can be affected in trauma injuries.
- Mental stress: Tightening your neck muscles due to tension commonly causes neck pain and stiffness.
- Physical strain: Overusing your neck muscles during repetitive actions or strenuous activities can lead to stiffness and pain.
- Conditions that affect spinal balance: Poor posture (sitting for long periods of time; poor computer/keyboard/chair positioning), being overweight, weak abdominal muscles can all affect spine posture and contribute to neck pain.
- Growths: In rare cases, masses including tumors, cysts and bone spurs can cause neck pain.
- Other health conditions: Meningitis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer.
Care and Treatment
How is neck pain diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose neck pain with a physical exam and medical history. Your doctor will feel and move your neck to locate pain and find motion problems. Doctors also check your muscle strength and reflexes. Your doctor will ask about previous neck injuries that might have caused whiplash or a herniated disc. Your doctor may ask about work or other activities that could affect your neck.
To diagnose the cause of the pain, your doctor may use imaging tests such as X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). These tests can show damage and other issues in the bones and surrounding tissues in your neck.
Other tests that your doctor may order include: electromyography, nerve conduction studies, myelogram and/or nerve root block. These tests look more closely at the discs in the spine, the spine itself, check the function of nerves and muscle response and source of the pain.
How is neck pain managed or treated?
Treatment for neck pain varies depending on the cause. It aims to relieve pain and improve function. Standard treatments for this symptom include:
- Medicines including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease pain and inflammation and muscle relaxants to help the healing process.
- Physical therapy (exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons in the neck).
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) reduces pain by disrupting the pain signal with a low-level electrical current applied to the skin near the nerves causing the pain.
- Traction to relieve pain with the use of inflatable devices.
- Steroid injections near the nerve roots to help relieve pain and inflammation.
- Surgery to repair compressed or damaged spinal disks or fuse some vertebrae in the spine.
What can I do to relieve neck pain at home?
Your doctor or physical therapist can recommend steps you can take at home to relieve neck pain. These may include:
- Using heat or ice packs.
- Doing gentle stretches or exercises.
- Taking over-the-counter medicines to relieve pain and inflammation such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
- Temporarily stopping physical activity.
Long-term strategies to reduce neck pain include:
- Quit smoking. Smoking damages bone structure and slows healing.
- Lose weight if you are obese.
- Reduce your stress level. Walk, meditate, get a massage, try a yoga class, exercise.
- Do exercises that strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I call the doctor if I have neck pain?
Contact your doctor if you have neck pain that interferes with work or other daily activities.
In rare cases, neck pain can be a sign of a medical emergency. Seek urgent medical care if your neck pain:
- Develops after having an accident.
- Happens with numbness or tingling in the arms, shoulders or legs.
- Occurs with weakness in legs or loss of coordination in arms or legs.
- Includes headache, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting.
- Involves loss of bowel or bladder control.
- Arises along with a stiff neck.
- Occurs with chills, fever, or unexplained weight loss.
- Stays the same when resting or moving.
- Does not respond to over-the-counter medications.
- Does not lessen after one week.