What is neck pain?
Neck pain is any type of pain or discomfort throughout the neck region, which consists of the cervical spine, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. Most people will experience neck pain at some point in their lives, and it is usually not a cause for concern.
Neck pain can be due to minor problems, such as sleeping in an awkward position, or it can be due to more serious problems, such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease. Any of the structures in the neck can become irritated or inflamed in response to a variety of different conditions.
Depending on the underlying cause, neck pain may last briefly, or it may be chronic, defined as lasting more than three months. Your neck pain may feel like a dull ache, or it may be sharp and jolting in a specific area. Although most cases of neck pain resolve themselves in a few days to a few weeks with basic self-care measures, neck pain can also persist and lead to more serious problems, such as nerve damage.
Neck pain usually originates in the neck itself, but it can also be due to problems in other parts of the body, such as the head, shoulders and chest, and radiate to the neck. Therefore, your neck pain may be accompanied by other symptoms.
Neck pain occurring with other symptoms, such as pain or numbness down your arm, difficulty breathing, or a stiff neck, may be a sign of a serious medical condition and should be evaluated as soon as possible or in an emergency medical facility. In addition, if your pain follows an injury or accident or is extreme, persistent, or causes you concern, contact a medical professional.
What other symptoms might occur with neck pain?
Neck pain may occur with other symptoms depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For instance, if your neck pain is due to arthritis, you may experience pain in other parts of your body. Neck pain due to a pinched nerve can lead to pain, tingling, and numbness down one or both arms. Neck pain due to poor posture and stress may occur along with fatigue and sleep problems. The range of symptoms that may occur with neck pain include:
- Altered posture
- Shoulder pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Pain and tingling down your shoulder and arm
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, neck pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as meningitis or heart attack, which should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition include:
What causes neck pain?
The neck consists of the cervical spine and spinal cord, nerves, intervertebral discs, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Any of these structures can become irritated or inflamed in response to a variety of mild to serious conditions, such as poor posture, trauma, cervical spondylosis, and arthritis.
Common causes of neck pain are overuse, poor posture, and whiplash, which is often incurred in a car accident or other trauma. Neck pain can also be caused by rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. A problem or injury in another part of the body, such as the chest, shoulders and head, can also radiate to the neck. This is called referred neck pain.
Structural causes of neck pain
Neck pain can be due to injury, inflammation, or infection of the bones and tissues including:
- Herniated disc
- Osteomyelitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal bones)
- Osteoporosis (metabolic bone disease)
- Paget’s disease of the bone
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Spinal cord trauma
- Spinal degeneration (degenerative disc disease, also called spondylosis)
- Spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal that presses on the spinal cord or nerves)
- Spondylitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal joints)
- Sprains and strains due to overuse or injury, such as a muscle spasm
Other possible causes of neck pain
Neck pain can also be due to systemic problems or problems affecting other body systems including:
Life-threatening causes of neck pain
In some cases, neck pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated as soon as possible or in an emergency setting. For example, some types of neck pain can indicate a serious bacterial infection (meningitis) of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Life-threatening causes of neck pain include:
- Heart attack
- Multiple myeloma
- Spinal tumor or cancer (the tumor can be noncancerous, also known as benign)
What are the risk factors for neck pain?
Although anyone can experience neck pain, there are certain risk factors that make you more likely to encounter it at some point in your life. In general, neck and back pain most often begin around age 30. The normal aging process leads to wear and tear of the bones and discs between each vertebra. Risk factors include:
- Family history of neck pain or degenerative disc disease
- Increasing age
- Occupational activities that expose the individual to possible injury (slips, falls)
- Poor posture
- Riding in a motor vehicle without seatbelts
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Sports activities that involve physical contact
- Stress and anxiety
What are the potential complications of neck pain?
Complications depend on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, neck pain resulting from a degenerative condition, such as spondylosis, can lead to inactivity and its associated complications. Fortunately, most cases of neck pain can be alleviated or minimized by physical therapy, basic self-care measures, and following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor.
However, in some cases neck pain may become a chronic condition and affect your daily life. Research into the diagnosis and treatment of neck pain is ongoing, so contact your health care professional for the latest information on causes and treatment plans.
Over time, neck pain can lead to complications including: