7 things that could be causing your neck pain and how to get relief
- Neck pain can be acute, which means it happens suddenly, or chronic, which means it comes and goes.
- Common causes of neck pain include injuries, arthritis, poor posture, and fibromyalgia.
- If rest, OTC pain relievers, and time don't ease your pain, connect with a doctor for more guidance.
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Neck pain is relatively common — in fact, one 2017 study involving 600 participants found that 20.3% complained of neck pain.
Many of the reasons behind neck pain aren't serious. All the same, knowing your pain isn't caused by a major issue won't necessarily keep you from worrying about that crick in your neck.
So what's most likely to be causing your neck pain? Muscular-related and degenerative arthritic issues are common culprits, says Michael P. Stauff, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center.
To help determine the cause, you first need to identify what type of neck pain you're experiencing.
Types of neck pain
Acute pain, or pain that crops up suddenly, is often caused by muscle strains or sprains. Most instances of acute neck pain will go away within a few days with the help of over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatories and rest, says Ali Arghi, DO, an orthopedic spine surgeon at The CORE Institute Sun City West Spine Center.
Chronic pain, which may involve constant soreness or pain that comes and goes, is more likely to happen because of an underlying degenerative condition. "Many degenerative conditions will start as intermittent pain, which becomes more common and recurring as time and the condition progress," says Arghi.
Read on to learn more about some of the most common causes of neck pain, along with tips to get relief.
1. Poor sitting and sleep posture
Hunching over your desk for hours on end, craning your neck to stare at your phone, or sleeping on lifeless pillows that provide little support can all potentially contribute to muscle-related neck pain.
To reduce instances of neck pain, Araghi shares a few tips:
- Avoid slouching whenever possible. Try not to bend your neck too far forward or backward, and keep your shoulders and back straight when sitting or standing.
- Keep ergonomics in mind when setting up your workspace. For example, positioning your screen at or below eye level can help you avoid craning your neck.
- Avoid repetitive overhead lifting that can strain the neck.
Also, falling asleep in an awkward position or otherwise straining the neck can cause underlying conditions, like arthritis, to flare up, says Stauff. If pain keeps coming back despite your best efforts, it may be a good idea to talk to a doctor.
It's no surprise that injuries can also contribute to neck pain. You can experience a neck injury in a variety of scenarios, including:
- Car accidents
A common type of injury that can cause neck pain is whiplash, which involves a sudden jerking movement of the head and neck. It can take weeks, if not months, for whiplash symptoms to improve — it all depends on the severity of your injury.
Treatment for whiplash or other mild neck injuries may involve:
- Wearing a cervical collar to support your neck and prevent further strain
- Applying ice to reduce swelling immediately after the injury
- Taking anti-inflammatory medications to limit pain and inflammation
- Taking muscle relaxants
- Participating in physical therapy
Herniated cervical disc
Injury or trauma to the neck and upper back can also cause a herniated cervical disc, which might cause neck pain as an early symptom.
Cervical discs cushion the vertebrae of the upper spine. When a disc is herniated, the material inside the disc bulges out, which can cause:
- Pain that begins in your neck and radiates to your upper extremities
- Numbness in your hands, shoulders, or arms
- Weakness in your arms or hands
Sometimes, a herniated disc can lead to spinal stenosis, or compression of the spinal cord, which can also involve neck pain. Both conditions require immediate treatment, which might include:
- physical therapy
- medications like pain relievers
- nerve root or steroid injections
- surgery if the pain persists and symptoms don't improve
When you think of arthritis, you might think of someone rubbing the painful knuckles on their hands. Arthritis does commonly affect the hands, but this degenerative disease can also affect the discs and joints in your spine, including those in the neck.
Cervical spondylosis is a form of degenerative arthritis (aka osteoarthritis) that specifically affects the neck and is the result of regular wear and tear associated with aging. So this type of arthritis is very common in older adults — it affects more than 85% of people over 60.
- Noises or sensations when turning your neck, such as grinding or popping
- Numbness in your hands, arms, or fingers if stenosis, or nerve compression, occurs
- Muscle spasms in the shoulders and neck
Treatment typically involves:
- Physical therapy
- Medications to limit pain and inflammation, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
- Ice and heat
- Steroid injections
Your doctor may recommend surgery if you have a pinched spinal nerve or spinal stenosis.
Stauff notes that degenerative changes in the spine don't always produce symptoms. "Plenty of people are walking around with a lot of arthritic changes that, on average, are really not causing people too many symptoms," says Stauff. If you're not experiencing symptoms, treatment isn't necessary.
Another potential reason for chronic neck pain is fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread pain throughout the body. Experts don't know exactly why some people develop this disorder, but if you have rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, you're more likely to develop fibromyalgia.
Other symptoms of the condition include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Difficulty with sleep, including waking up feeling unrested
- Issues with memory and focus
- Headaches and migraine
This serious condition that causes inflammation of the spinal cord and brain membranes requires immediate medical attention.
Symptoms, which usually come on suddenly, may include:
- A stiff neck
You might also experience nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion.
6. Heart attack
In some people, neck pain may be a symptom of a heart attack, which requires emergency treatment.
Other signs of a heart attack include:
- Discomfort in the chest area that may feel like squeezing, fullness, pressure, or pain
- Discomfort in the upper body like the neck but also the arms, stomach, jaw, or back
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 911.
Neck pain can also be a symptom of cancer. Thyroid cancer, for example, can cause painful or painless swelling at the front of the neck.
Specific symptoms of head and neck cancers depend on the location and type of cancer but may include:
- A lump in your neck, or pain that doesn't go away
- Sores in your throat or mouth that don't heal
- Constant sore throat that doesn't go away
- Problems swallowing
- Changes in your voice
- Swelling around the jaw or chin
- Numbness in your face
A lot of these symptoms can be signs of other non-serious conditions, but if they're bothering you, don't hesitate to talk to a doctor.
If you experience persistent pain that doesn't seem to resolve with rest, anti-inflammatories, and massage, talk to your primary care physician. They can perform a physical exam and refer you to a specialist if necessary.
"If there's numbness, tingling, or weakness in the shoulder, arms, hands, or fingers, this should not be ignored as it can be a sign of cervical spine nerve compression, which requires immediate treatment," says Araghi.
Additionally, if your pain is severe enough to affect your daily activities, that also suggests it's time to see a medical professional, says Stauff.
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