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A pain in the neck. What's the cause?

reviewed 1/2/2020

Causes of neck pain

A pain in the neck is common enough to have become a clichéd phrase. That may be because your neck is more prone to injuries and disorders than the rest of your spine. The good news? Usually neck pain is temporary and only needs at-home treatment.

ANATOMY OF THE NECK

Your neck is made up of seven cervical bones (vertebrae) stacked one on top of the other. In between these bones are discs that act as shock-absorbing cushions. Ligaments and muscles provide stability to the structure. Nerve roots branch out from the spinal cord through openings in the vertebrae. Problems in any of these areas can cause pain.

Keep scrolling to learn about some common causes of neck pain.

WEAR AND TEAR

Normal wear and tear and the effects of aging can cause arthritis, which can put pressure on the nerve roots. This causes what's known as a "pinched nerve."

A pinched nerve can cause pain that radiates into the shoulder, a "pins and needles" sensation in the hand, and weakness in the muscles of the arm or hand.

Wear and tear can also contribute to a herniated disc.

What to do: Your doctor might suggest over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain relievers, a soft cervical collar to give your neck muscles a rest, and physical therapy. If the pain and other symptoms don't go away, you may need surgery to get relief.

INJURY

Sudden movement—such as from a vehicle accident or a hard fall—can cause problems like a neck sprain, strain or so-called "whiplash" injury. Symptoms can include pain in the back of the neck, muscle spasms and pain in the shoulder, headache, neck stiffness, and tingling or weakness in the arms.

What to do: Sprains and strains usually heal with time. Pain can often be eased with OTC pain relievers. You also can use an ice pack on the back of your neck to reduce inflammation.

Severe neck pain after an injury is a medical emergency. And any neck pain after an accident or fall should be checked by a doctor.

POOR POSTURE OR OVERUSE

Holding your neck in one position for a long time—such as when driving, reading or working on a computer—can lead to neck pain. So can sleeping in an awkward position.

What to do: Take regular breaks from neck-straining activities, and try to maintain good posture by holding your head up and keeping your shoulders back and down—instead of sitting in a hunched position. Also, try to avoid sleeping on your stomach with your head turned. Instead, sleep on your side or back with your neck supported.

STRESS

Emotional stress can cause neck tension, as well as tension-related headache pain.

What to do: Relaxation techniques can ease symptoms of stress and tension. You might want to try deep-breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation.

WHEN NECK PAIN NEEDS IMMEDIATE CARE

Neck pain often gets better with conservative treatments and time. Your doctor can offer advice on how to best manage your symptoms.

Get medical care right away if your neck pain:

  • Happens after an injury, like a car accident or fall. (If the injury is severe, call 911.)
  • Radiates down the arms or legs.
  • Doesn't go away.
  • Occurs with headaches, numbness, tingling or weakness.

LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR BACK

Your neck, or cervical spine, is closely related to the rest of your back. Find out how all the parts work together.

SEE THE ANATOMY OF THE BACK

Sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; American Association of Neurological Surgeons; UpToDate

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