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.
  • Resting.
  • 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.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/12/2019.

References

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