When to See a Doctor for Neck Pain

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Neck pain or stiffness is a very common symptom that most people experience at some point in their lives. In fact, a CDC survey found that 13.9% of men and 17.4% of women surveyed reported having had neck pain in just the last three months.

Neck pain can be dull or sharp, sudden or gradual, brief or chronic, and causes can vary widely from benign to emergency conditions. Whether you need a doctor or can treat your pain at home depends upon what happened just before the pain started and what other symptoms you may be having.

Common Causes of Neck Pain

The neck is an area where several important muscles, bones, blood vessels, and nerves are grouped closely together. Therefore, a sore neck can be caused by any injury or illness that affects one or more of those systems. Some common neck pain causes include:

In some cases, a painful or stiff neck can also be caused by a serious or life-threatening medical condition, such as heart attack, meningitis, or Lyme disease.

Treating Neck Pain at Home

In many cases, neck and shoulder pain is caused by a mild muscle strain or tension. If you don’t have other symptoms and you don’t remember any traumatic event that caused the pain to start, there’s a good chance this may be the source of the issue. Fortunately, this type of pain usually goes away within a few days with gentle stretching, massage, and applying ice or heat a few times a day. You should also check your posture and whether you’re sleeping in a position that puts pressure on your neck or shoulder.

When to See a Doctor for Neck Pain

See a doctor right away if your neck pain occurs after a traumatic accident or fall, such as a car accident, diving accident, or head injury. While some pain and stiffness is to be expected after an event like this, it’s critical to find out whether those symptoms are related to a more serious condition, such as a bone fracture. If your pain is not associated with a traumatic injury, watch for other symptoms. While many cases of neck pain or stiffness are nothing to worry about, some underlying causes for the pain may be very serious.

See a doctor if your pain:

  • Is so bad it interferes with normal activities or sleeping

  • Gets worse or lasts for several weeks despite home treatment

  • Comes with tingling in any part of your body

  • Comes with urinary or bowel incontinence

Get to an emergency room immediately if your neck pain occurs with symptoms such as:

Who to See for Neck Pain

If your neck pain comes with any of the emergency symptoms listed above, seek care at an emergency room right away. If you do not have any emergency symptoms, schedule a visit with your primary care physician, an orthopedist, or a neurologist. An orthopedist is a doctor who specializes in musculoskeletal conditions, including those that affect the spine. A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in nerve conditions. In some cases, they may work together.

See your primary care physician if:

  • You do not have any other symptoms aside from neck pain.

  • You do not remember a specific event that triggered the pain. For example, you just woke up one day and it was there.

  • Your insurance requires you to see your primary care physician for a referral to a specialist.

See an orthopedist if:

  • You feel or hear grinding, crunching or popping in your neck bones.

  • Applying heat or ice provides temporary relief, but the pain keeps coming back.

  • You remember a specific event when the pain started, such as stepping off a curb, lifting something, or bending over.

See a neurologist if:

  • You feel a tingling sensation.

  • You experience incontinence.

  • You experience fatigue or “brain fog.”

  • You feel shooting pains or numbness and you have already had another doctor rule out a potential heart problem.

Once you and your doctor have identified the problem, you may want to consider visiting a massage therapist or chiropractor as part of your treatment plan. Be prepared to answer questions about the type of pain you’re experiencing, what may have brought it on, what treatments you’ve already tried, and other questions to help give the practitioner a full understanding of your condition. These types of treatments will probably require multiple sessions, but may be effective at giving you relief.

Remember: Neck and shoulder pain or stiffness are common symptoms with a wide range of possible causes. When you experience this type of pain, it’s important to pay attention to what the rest of your body is telling you as well. When in doubt, see a doctor for a thorough examination, diagnosis and treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 17
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