Many people experience neck pain or stiffness from injury, overuse, or inflammation. There are many treatment options available for neck pain, depending on what is causing it.
The neck consists of seven vertebrae. These are interlocking bones, separated by disks, that enable movement and stability.
The neck is less protected than the rest of the spine. For this reason, it may be more prone to injury or conditions that cause pain.
Many cases of neck pain are mild and will resolve on their own within a few days. Sometimes, however, neck pain can be a sign of something more serious.
This article will discuss different causes of neck pain and how to treat them.
There are many possible causes of neck pain, including:
Straining the neck muscles can cause soreness in the area. This soreness might present as an aching or throbbing pain.
It can also cause a sharp pain, especially when moving the head.
Muscle strain can occur as a result of:
- having bad posture
- sleeping in a position without good neck support
- sitting at a desk or computer for too long
Cervical spondylosis, or cervical disk degeneration, refers to when the disks between the neck’s vertebrae wear down.
This increases friction between the vertebrae and can cause pain and stiffness in the neck as a result.
These disks typically wear down over time, so cervical spondylosis becomes more common with age.
The disk can also begin to bulge out and put pressure on the spinal cord or its nerve roots. This degenerative process may worsen, leading to a herniated cervical disk fragment. This can fully push against nerve tissue to cause significant neck pain that may also radiate to the shoulder and down one or both arms.
The neck is flexible and constantly supporting the head. This makes it particularly susceptible to injury.
Examples of possible neck injury causes include:
- motor vehicle accidents
- impact sports, such as football
Damage to a muscle or ligament usually causes neck injuries.
In more severe cases, injury can lead to a broken neck. This is occurs when one or more of the vertebrae becomes fractured.
A broken neck can cause severe pain that may spread to other areas of the spinal cord. It also increases the risk of further injury to the spinal cord and loss of neurological function, including paralysis.
Cervical radiculopathy involves a pinched nerve. This occurs when a nerve root from the spinal cord in the neck becomes irritated or compressed. This gives rise to radiating pain from the neck to the shoulder and upper extremity.
It can also cause muscle weakness, numbness, and a tingling sensation through the arms or hands.
Other conditions, such as arthritis, can also lead to cervical radiculopathy, as can injuries resulting in a herniated cervical disk.
Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on nerve roots. This narrowing usually occurs in the neck or lower back.
People with spinal stenosis can experience pain in their neck, back, or legs. The pain is usually worse with activity, but sometimes, posturing the neck in a certain way can relieve the discomfort.
Osteoarthritis typically causes spinal stenosis. Other causes of this condition include spinal tumors, birth defects, and Paget’s disease.
Meningitis refers to inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. An infection, such as from bacteria or a virus, can cause this inflammation to occur.
Bacterial meningitis can be serious and sometimes life threatening. If any of the following symptoms arise, immediate medical attention is necessary:
- neck stiffness
- sensitivity to light
Head and neck cancers can cause pain in the neck. These forms of cancer make up about 4% of all cases of cancer in the United States.
There are several different types of head and neck cancers, including:
- nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer
- laryngeal cancer
- oral cancer
- nasopharyngeal cancer
- salivary gland cancer
Other symptoms of head and neck cancers include:
- mouth sores
- growths on the head or neck
- voice changes
- trouble breathing
- jaw pain
- weight loss
There are many ways to ease neck pain at home, including by:
- taking over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (also called Tylenol)
- placing warm or cold packs on the neck to reduce pain symptoms
- avoiding contact sports and heavy lifting
- seeing a physical therapist
- doing gentle neck stretches
- keeping good posture
- engaging in light exercises, such as yoga
- using supportive neck pillows for sleep
There are also many different neck exercises that can help relieve pain. To try a simple exercise for the neck:
- Stand up or sit in a chair with the feet flat on the floor, around shoulder width apart.
- Slowly turn the head to the right until feeling a gentle stretch. Be careful to avoid stretching too far and causing further pain. Hold this position for 10–30 seconds.
- Turn the head to the left and hold for 10–30 seconds.
- Repeat these steps up to five times on each side.
For more serious cases of neck pain, a doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections or surgery.
Some tips to prevent neck pain or injury include:
- practicing good posture, especially when sitting at a desk or looking at a computer
- sleeping on a supportive mattress and pillow
- regularly exercising to keep joints loose and flexible
- wearing a seatbelt while in the car
- not diving into shallow water
- wearing suitable protective gear during sports or exercise
When to see a doctor
- In most cases, neck pain will go away on its own. However, it is important to see a doctor if the following symptoms occur:
- neck pain following a motor vehicle accident, fall, or diving accident
- pain, numbness, or weakness that spreads to the arms and legs
- bowel or bladder problems
- severe or worsening pain
- severe headache with neck pain or stiffness
- signs of fever
- nausea and vomiting
- a lump in the neck or head