By Ann Pietrangelo
Neck pain or stiffness is usually from poor posture, overuse, or an awkward sleeping position. But sometimes, it can indicate a serious injury like whiplash or an illness, so a doctor’s care may be necessary.
Your neck is made up of vertebrae that extend from the skull to the upper torso. Cervical discs absorb shock between the bones.
The bones, ligaments, and muscles of your neck support your head and allow for motion. Any abnormalities, inflammation, or injury can cause neck pain or stiffness.
If you have neck pain that continues for more than a week, is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Neck pain symptoms
Neck pain symptoms can range in severity and duration. Oftentimes, neck pain is acute and lasts for only a couple of days or weeks. Other times, it may become chronic. Your neck pain may be mild and not interfere much with your activities or daily living, or it may be severe and cause disability.
Symptoms of neck pain may include:
- • Stiff neck. People with next pain often describe feeling as though their neck is "stiff" or "stuck." Neck pain can sometimes cause a decreased range of motion.
- • Sharp pain. Neck pain may feel like sharp or “stabbing” pain that is localized to one area.
- • Pain when moving. Neck pain is often exacerbated by moving, twisting, or extending your cervical spine, either from side to side or up and down.
- • Radiating pain or numbness. Your neck pain may radiate to your head, trunk, shoulder, and arms. If your neck pain involves the compression of a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in either of your arms or hands. Neck pain that is from a pinched nerve may feel like a burning or sharp pain that starts at the neck and travels down the arm. Talk with a doctor if you experience this symptom.
- • Headache. Pain that starts in your neck may also produce a headache called a cervicogenic headache. Neck pain with a headache may also be a symptom of a migraine headache.
- • Pain when palpated. Neck pain may increase if your cervical spine is palpated (physically examined).
Causes of neck pain
Neck pain or stiffness can happen for a variety of reasons.
Muscle tension and strain
This is usually from activities and behaviors such as:
- • poor posture
- • working at a desk for too long without changing position
- • sleeping with your neck in a bad position
- • jerking your neck during exercise
- • injury
The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury, especially in falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck are forced to move outside of their normal range.
If the neck bones (cervical vertebrae) are fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury from sudden jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.
Neck pain can also be a symptom of a heart attack. It often presents with other symptoms of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, arm or jaw pain.
If your neck hurts and you have other symptoms of heart attack, call an ambulance or go to the emergency room immediately.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. In people who have meningitis, they may experience stiff neck, headache, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and fever.
Meningitis can be fatal and is a medical emergency.
Other causes of neck pain include the following:
- • Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling of the joints, and bone spurs. When these occur in the neck area, neck pain can result.
- • Osteoporosis weakens bones and can lead to small fractures. This condition often happens in hands or knees, but it can also occur in the neck.
- • Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes muscle pain throughout the body, especially in the neck and shoulder region.
- • As you age, the cervical discs can degenerate. This is known as spondylosis, or osteoarthritis of the neck. This can narrow the space between the vertebrae. It also adds stress to your joints.
- • When a disc protrudes, as from a trauma or injury, it may add pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. This is called a herniated cervical disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc.
- • Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal column narrows and causes pressure on the spinal cord or the nerve roots as it exits the vertebrae. This can be from long-term inflammation caused by arthritis or other conditions.
- • In rare instances, neck stiffness or pain occurs due to congenital abnormalities, infections, abscesses, tumors, or cancer of the spine.
When to see your doctor
If symptoms persist for more than a week, consult a doctor.
Also see a doctor if you have severe neck pain without apparent cause like a lump in your neck, fever, headache, swollen glands, nausea, vomiting, trouble swallowing or breathing, weakness, numbness, tingling, pain that radiates down your arms or legs, inability to move
your arms or hands, inability to touch your chin to your chest, or bladder or bowel dysfunction.
If you’ve been in an accident or fall and your neck hurts, seek medical care immediately.
How to ease neck pain at home
If you have minor neck pain or stiffness, take these simple steps to relieve it:
- 1. Apply ice for the first few days. After that, apply heat with a heating pad, hot compress, or by taking a hot shower.
- 2. Take OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- 3. Take a few days off from sports, activities that aggravate your symptoms, and heavy lifting. When you resume normal activity, do so slowly as your symptoms ease.
- 4. Exercise your neck every day. Slowly stretch your head in side-to-side and up-and-down motions.
- 5. Practice good posture.
- 6. Avoid cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder.
- 7. Change your position often. Don't stand or sit in one position for too long.
- 8. Get a gentle neck massage.
- 9. Use a special neck pillow for sleeping.
- 10. Don't use a neck brace or collar without your doctor's approval. If you don't use them properly, they can make your symptoms worse.