What Is Neck Pain? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed

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.

Your neck and upper back (cervical spine) consist of seven vertebral bones that support your head. These bones are separated by vertebral discs, and are reinforced by a network of muscles and ligaments (connective tissue). A problem with any of these structures, or with nerves in or near your neck, can cause neck pain.

Mild to moderate neck pain can usually be treated at home and improves within a couple of weeks, but it’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you develop severe neck pain suddenly due to an injury, such as after a car accident or a fall. You should also consult a healthcare provider if, in addition to neck pain, you're also experiencing numbness or loss of strength in your arms or hands, or a shooting pain down your arm.

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.

Neck pain can also be acute, lasting days to weeks, or chronic, lasting longer than three months to several years.

Causes and Risk Factors of Neck Pain

Neck pain can be caused by various health conditions, including the following:

  • Strained muscles
  • Arthritis
  • 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
  • Smoking

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.

Blood tests Certain markers of inflammation or infection may help identify conditions that contribute to neck pain.

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.

But more serious conditions may require sustained treatment, procedures, and possibly surgery to see significant improvement.

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.

If your neck pain lasts longer than a few days or gets worse, or if it interferes with your daily life, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.

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.

Most forms of mild to moderate neck pain respond well to self-care and conservative treatments, usually within two to three weeks. If your pain still isn’t resolved, your doctor may recommend other treatments.

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
  • Rest

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.

Medication Options

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:

Physical Therapy

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.

Traction This therapy uses a specialized device to gently stretch your neck, and may help if nerve root irritation is the cause of your pain.


Surgery is rarely needed for neck pain but may be recommended if you have nerve root or spinal cord compression. For these conditions, surgery involves removing tissue that is pressing against nerves.

Surgery may be performed to repair damaged or compressed discs in your spine, or to fuse vertebrae when repairing discs isn’t possible.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

If your neck pain is caused by arthritis or a related joint condition, it’s possible that taking a turmeric (curcumin) supplement will help. In fact, some studies have shown that turmeric supplements can be similar in effectiveness to certain NSAID drugs for this purpose.

Other alternative therapies that may help with neck pain include:

Prevention of Neck Pain

Not all neck pain can be prevented, but maintaining good posture — keeping your shoulders straight over your hips and your ears right above your shoulders — can help reduce your chances of developing 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.

Sleep with your head and neck in alignment with the rest of your body. The Mayo Clinic recommends you try to sleep on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows in order to flatten your spinal muscles.

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.

While it’s unlikely that most forms of neck pain will lead to long-term damage, it’s a good idea to see your doctor if you have pain that lasts longer than a few days or gets worse over time. Your doctor can make sure you don’t have a serious underlying condition that requires treatment.

Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Neck Pain?

Neck pain is thought to affect about one in three people at least once a year, making it a very common symptom, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Other estimates, though, have found neck pain to be somewhat less common. A study published in March 2020 in the journal BMJ found that neck pain affected 3.6 percent of people around the world in 2017, a number that hadn’t changed significantly since 1990. Norway had the highest rate of neck pain in the world, with a prevalence of 6.2 percent.

Another study, published in May 2017 in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, looked at a sample of adults age 20 and older from the general population. It found that 20.3 percent of participants reported neck pain, and that people who were widowed or separated were more than twice as likely to do so. Other factors associated with an increased risk of neck pain included lower income and education level, sitting or leaning while working, or having two or more health conditions.

Related Conditions of Neck Pain

Neck pain is a common form of chronic pain. Other commonly reported forms of pain include:

Degenerative conditions that cause neck pain include spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis.

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.

Arthritis Foundation

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

  1. Neck Pain. Mayo Clinic. July 31, 2020.
  2. Anatomy of the Spine — Upper Back, Lower Back, and Neck. Arthritis Foundation. December 2020.
  3. Neck Pain. Cleveland Clinic. December 12, 2019.
  4. Neck Pain and Problems. Johns Hopkins Medicine. December 2020.
  5. Curcumin for Arthritis: Does It Really Work? Harvard Health Publishing. November 12, 2019.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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