Neck pain is a common complaint that can be caused by a variety of different health conditions. It can range from mild to severe, with more severe cases possibly indicating a serious underlying problem.
Signs and Symptoms of Neck Pain
Neck pain may be characterized by the following symptoms:
- Persistent aching
- Stabbing pain
- Burning or tingling
- Tenderness or sensitivity to mild pressure
- Pain that gets worse when you hold your head in one place for a while
- Muscle tightness or spasms
Neck pain can be axial (limited mostly to the neck) or radicular (extending to areas such as the shoulders or arms). It may be accompanied by a headache, or by numbness or tingling in one or both arms.
Causes and Risk Factors of Neck Pain
Neck pain can be caused by various health conditions, including the following:
- Strained muscles
- Herniated disc, disc degeneration
- Pinched nerves and bone spurs (nerve compression)
- Trauma or injury
- Growths, including tumors and cysts (in rare cases)
The following factors are known to increase the risk of developing neck pain:
- Older age
- Mental stress
- Strenuous physical activity
- Being overweight or obese
- Being a woman
- Driving or traveling long distances
- Working long hours at a computer
- Hunching your neck down often, such as to look at your phone
- Carrying heavy bags on shoulder straps
- Poor alignment while sleeping
How Is Neck Pain Diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose your condition on the basis of a personal medical history and a physical exam. During this exam, your doctor will check for tenderness, numbness, and weakness in your neck.
Your doctor will also ask about your regular activities, as well as any previous injuries that may have contributed to the problem, such as a herniated disc.
In some cases, you doctor may decide that imaging tests of your neck are needed, such as the following:
X-ray This test can reveal degenerative changes that may be putting pressure on nerves.
Computed tomography (CT) scan This test combines X-ray images to create a detailed cross-section of structures in your neck.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Magnetic field and radio waves create detailed images of areas of your body.
Other tests that may help with diagnosis include:
Nerve conduction study This procedure measures nerve impulses when a small amount of electrical current is applied, in order to detect damaged nerves.
Electromyography (EMG) This test involves inserting a needle electrode into muscles to measure their electrical activity, to help detect damage to nerves leading to muscles.
Prognosis of Neck Pain
How severe your neck pain is, how long it lasts, and how likely it is to resolve on its own will depend on the underlying condition causing your pain.
If your neck pain is due to a strained muscle, it will most likely respond to self-care and get better with time.
Duration of Neck Pain
Neck pain can be acute, lasting days to weeks, or chronic, lasting for 12 weeks or longer. How long your pain lasts will depend on the underlying cause and its severity.
Treatment and Medication Options for Neck Pain
Recommended treatments for neck pain vary with the cause of your pain. In general, the goals of treatment are to relieve pain and improve function.
Self-care options that may help resolve neck pain include:
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
- Using heat or ice packs, or alternating between both
- Gentle stretches and neck exercises
When to See a Doctor
You should call your doctor if you have persistent neck pain that interferes with your work or daily activities.
While neck pain usually isn’t a medical emergency, you should seek immediate medical attention if any of the following applies to your pain:
- It develops after an accident or trauma.
- It occurs with numbness or tingling in your arms, shoulders, or legs.
- It occurs with weakness in your arms or legs.
- You experience a headache, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting.
- You experience loss of bladder or bowel control.
- You have chills, fever, or unexplained weight loss.
Common OTC medications to help relieve neck pain include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
If OTC options aren’t strong enough for your pain, your doctor may consider prescribing or administering the following medications:
- Other NSAIDs
- Muscle relaxants
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Steroid injections
Some conditions that cause neck pain, including strained muscles, may benefit from physical therapy.
A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help strengthen muscles in your neck, as well as help you correct your posture and alignment.
The following treatments may also be administered by a physical therapist or other therapist:
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) This therapy delivers electrical impulses through the skin to help relieve pain.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
- Chiropractic care
Prevention of Neck Pain
Other simple modifications can also help:
If you work at a desk, adjust your setup so your computer monitor is at eye level and your knees are slightly lower than your hips when you're sitting.
Avoid carrying heavy bags over your shoulder.
Complications of Neck Pain
Neck pain can make it difficult to accomplish daily tasks, from driving a car to typing on a computer or doing kitchen tasks.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Neck Pain?
Related Conditions of Neck Pain
Neck pain is a common form of chronic pain. Other commonly reported forms of pain include:
Resources We Love
American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine (AANEM)
This medical association is dedicated to advancing treatment of neuromuscular and musculoskeletal conditions. Its website contains information on numerous disorders, including pinched nerves and neck pain in general.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
This group, representing surgeons who specialize in the musculoskeletal system, provides information on specific disorders affecting the neck — including fractures, spinal cord compression, a herniated disc, and arthritis.
American Association of Neurological Surgeons
This organization of neurosurgeons provides an overview of common causes and treatments for neck pain, including when surgery may be warranted.
This leading arthritis research and advocacy organization provides information on joint conditions affecting the neck and spine, and also has detailed resources on managing pain.
Additional reporting by Quinn Phillips.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Neck Pain. Mayo Clinic. July 31, 2020.
- Anatomy of the Spine — Upper Back, Lower Back, and Neck. Arthritis Foundation. December 2020.
- Neck Pain. Cleveland Clinic. December 12, 2019.
- Neck Pain and Problems. Johns Hopkins Medicine. December 2020.
- Curcumin for Arthritis: Does It Really Work? Harvard Health Publishing. November 12, 2019.
- Safiri S, Kolahi AA, et al. Global, Regional, and National Burden of Neck Pain in the General Population, 1990–2017: Systematic Analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. BMJ. March 26, 2020.
- Genebra CVDS, Maciel NM, et al. Prevalence and Factors Associated With Neck Pain: A Population-Based Study. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy. May 20, 2017.