A Guide to Neck Pain

Medically Reviewed By Gregory Minnis, DPT
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Neck pain is discomfort in the structures of the neck. You can experience neck pain from falls, accidents, or daily activities that cause stress or tension. Treatment may involve medication, injections, massage, exercises, or surgery. This article will discuss what neck pain is, its causes, and treatments.

What is neck pain?

Male touching the back of his neck
Oleksii Syrotkin/Stocksy United

Neck pain is discomfort or pain in any area of the neck that may also radiate down one or both arms. The structures of the neck that the pain typically affects include:

  • muscles
  • nerves
  • bones
  • joints
  • discs between the bones

When you have neck pain, you may have trouble moving it, such as turning your head from side to side. If neck pain is due to a nerve problem, you may experience numbness, tingling, or weakness radiating down your arm and hand.

About 30% of all people experience one episode of neck pain each year and it is slightly more common in females than males. People who sit at a computer for long periods of time may have a higher risk of neck pain.

Most people with neck pain show improvement in symptoms within a few weeks.

What other symptoms might occur with neck pain?

There are two types of neck pain:

  • Axial pain: You can feel this pain in the cervical spine, which comprises the neck, and sometimes spreads to the shoulders.
  • Radicular pain: This type of pain is usually the result of irritated nerves and may cause a shooting sensation up the back of the head and down into the arms. Another common feeling with this type of pain is tingling or ”pins and needles.”

Some symptoms that can occur with neck pain can include:

  • neck stiffness
  • shoulder or arm pain
  • headache
  • facial pain
  • dizziness
  • numbness or weakness in the arms
  • fingers or hands tingling
  • difficulty with walking or balance
  • weakness in the legs

What causes neck pain?

Most often, everyday activities cause neck pain resulting in muscle strain and tension. Neck pain can also result from accidents or falls that cause severe neck injuries such as whiplash, vertebral fractures, or blood vessel injury.

Some of the most common activities that cause neck pain include:

  • sleeping in an uncomfortable position
  • sitting at a desk for too long
  • having a computer monitor positioned too high or low
  • slouching while reading or watching TV
  • twisting your neck too hard while exercising
  • lifting things with an ineffective posture

Certain medical conditions can also cause neck pain. Some examples include:

Click here to read about when to see a doctor for muscle pain.

What are the risk factors for neck pain?

Certain people may be at more risk of developing neck pain. However, not all people with risk factors will develop neck pain.

Some common risk factors include:

When should you call a doctor for neck pain?

Call a doctor for neck pain if the pain is new or if your symptoms do not improve in a few weeks. If your neck pain causes numbness or tingling down one or both arms, contact a doctor right away.

Get immediate medical care if you experience an accident or injury that leaves you unable to move your neck.

How do doctors diagnose neck pain?

Your doctor will typically diagnose your neck pain by performing a physical exam. They will assess how well you can move your neck and whether there is pain upon movement.

They may ask you questions about your medical and surgical history, medications you take, and whether you experienced any recent injuries or accidents. If indicated, your doctor may order testing to further assess your neck symptoms.

These tests may include:

If your doctor thinks you need further evaluation from a specialist for your neck pain, they may refer you to a spine surgeon or a neurosurgeon in cases that involve the nerves. If you have chronic neck pain, your doctor may suggest you contact a pain management physician.

How do you treat neck pain?

Most of the time, neck pain is treatable at home using:

  • over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication
  • ice or heat application
  • massage
  • neck exercises

However, in some cases, prescription medication and even surgery may be necessary.

Medical treatments

For mild neck pain, your doctor may recommend that you take OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or a pain relief medication like acetaminophen. They may write you a referral for physical therapy to help stretch and strengthen your neck. If your neck pain is more severe, your doctor may prescribe opioid analgesics to help with your pain.

In some cases, your doctor may suggest you wear a cervical collar. This can help support the neck and decrease pain and irritation. Trigger point injections, such as corticosteroids, can also temporarily relieve pain, and in some cases, your doctor may recommend epidural injections.

If conservative management does not help or your neck pain gets worse, your doctor may recommend neck surgery. Experts usually recommend neck surgery for people with decreased functioning due to neck pain, neurological symptoms, or trouble with balance or walking.

In many cases, experts can perform a spinal fusion, which creates a solid union between two or more vertebrae, helping support unstable areas of the cervical spine. In other cases, your doctor may perform an artificial disc replacement or spinal decompression.

At-home treatments

There are many treatments you can do at home to help with your neck pain.

For the first 48 hours after your neck pain symptoms start, it is often helpful to use ice packs to manage swelling and inflammation. Then after that, you can use either heat or ice depending on which is more effective to relieve your pain. You may also find it is effective to alternate between the two.

You may need to initially stop physical activity to help calm your symptoms. Then, once the inflammation decreases, you may begin gentle range-of-motion exercises. They involve moving your neck up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear. These exercises can help gently stretch your neck muscles.

It is sometimes helpful to have your partner or a massage therapist gently massage painful or sore areas of your neck.

What are the potential complications of neck pain?

Improperly treated neck pain can result in chronic pain and difficulty doing some daily activities. This might lead to depression in some people and weight gain due to immobility.

If neck pain worsens, it can lead to nerve damage and symptoms such as numbness, weakness, or tingling in one or both arms. Some people may also have trouble with balance or walking and, in severe cases, lose bowel or bladder control.

How can you prevent neck pain?

One of the main ways you can prevent neck pain is by paying attention to your posture, especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for long periods of time.

If you sit in front of a computer, stand up and walk around every hour to help stretch the neck muscles. Being physically active, not smoking, and eating a balanced diet are good ways to prevent neck pain. If you are overweight or have obesity, losing weight may help, as excess weight can contribute to neck pain.

Click here to read about 6 things that will help improve your posture.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more questions people asked about neck pain.

How do I know if my neck pain is serious?

Neck pain is serious if it lasts more than a few weeks with conservative medical treatment or if you get nerve symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in one or both arms. If you develop a fever or headache, or your neck is so stiff that you cannot move it, contact your doctor right away because these are symptoms of meningitis.

Call your healthcare professional if you develop loss of bowel or bladder control, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if you have trouble with balance or walking.

How should I sleep with neck pain?

If you have neck pain, be sure to sleep on a comfortable mattress with a supportive pillow for your neck and head. Try to sleep on a low pillow that keeps your head in a neutral alignment, meaning that your head and neck do not tilt up or down. You can also try a memory foam pillow.

If you have neck pain, the two most effective sleeping positions are on your back or on your side.

Summary

Most people experience at least one episode of neck pain at some point.

Neck pain is often the result of everyday activities but is also sometimes due to accidents, injuries, or certain medical conditions.

Treatment usually involves OTC or prescription pain medication, gentle exercises, and ice or heat applications. In some cases of chronic neck pain, surgery is necessary. You can prevent neck pain by practicing effective posture and staying physically active.

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Medical Reviewer: Gregory Minnis, DPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.