If your neck pain lasts for days to years, a number of factors could be the cause. Examples include osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, herniated disc, pinched nerve, mental and physical stress, strain, poor posture, tumors, and other health concerns.
What is neck pain?
Neck pain is a pain in the region of the neck, also known as the cervical spine, and is a common symptom of many different injuries and medical conditions.
You have axial neck pain (felt mostly in your neck) or radicular neck pain (pain shoots into other areas of your back or arms). It can be acute (lasting from days to up to 6 weeks) or chronic (lasting greater than 3 months to years).
Neck pain can significantly affect your quality of life and stop you from doing the things you enjoy.
Who is affected by neck pain?
Neck pain is fairly common. It occurs in about one in three people per year. It is more common in women than men and automatically increases as you 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 the 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 problems and injuries can cause neck pain. Conditions that can cause neck pain include neck pain.
- Aging: Osteoarthritis (the wearing down of joint cartilage) and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spaces in the spine) can cause neck pain as you age. Over time, stress and motion can lead to spinal disc degeneration, resulting in a herniated disc or pinched nerve.
- Injury: Trauma from sudden forced movement in the neck or head and reaction in the opposite direction (whiplash) can damage the muscles, ligaments, discs, vertebral joints, and nerve roots in the spinal cord in the neck.
- Mental stress: Tension in your neck muscles often causes neck and shoulder pain.
- 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 a long time; poor computer keyboard chair positioning), being overweight, and 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, and cancer.
How is neck pain diagnosed?
Pain in the neck and shoulder region is diagnosed through a physical assessment and medical history by a healthcare professional. Your doctor will thoroughly examine your range of motion and observe how your reflexes function. Your doctor might ask about any previous neck injuries that may have caused whiplash or a herniated disc. Your doctor might consider your occupations or other factors when examining a possible neck injury.
To find out what is responsible for your neck pain when you enter a doctor’s office, your doctor may use imaging techniques such as x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computed tomography (CT). These tests will reveal if you have a weakened bone, a damaged ligament, or other concerns in your injured neck.
Other tests that your doctor may order subsequent to an imaging assessment include a nerve conduction study, a myelogram, and an electromyogram. These tests are conducted to examine the discs of the spine, as well as its function, the location of pain, and the reaction of nerves and muscles.
How is neck pain managed or treated?
Pain in the neck treatment varies depending on what the cause is. It seeks to relieve pain and reduce function. Standard treatments for this symptom include:
- Pain medicines including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and muscle relaxants can help ease soreness and promote healing.
- Physical therapy (exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons in the neck).
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) disrupts the pain signal with a low-level electrical current applied to the surface of the skin near the nerves causing pain.
- Traction to relieve pain with the use of inflatable devices. (Saunders Cervical Traction Device)
- 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.
- Take 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, and exercise.
- Do exercises that strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles.
When should I call the doctor if I have neck pain?
Call your doctor if you have neck pain that disrupts daily activities at work or with friends. In some cases, neck pain could be indicative 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.